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Swelling of the Extremities

Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

Extremities is a term used to describe the arms and legs. Swelling may occur in the limbs for many reasons.

What is going on in the body?

Most people notice when their limbs swell. The swelling can not only be seen, but also often causes discomfort or even pain. Swelling may occur in only one limb or all of them.

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Swelling in the limbs can be due to any of several problems. Some of these conditions affect only one limb, or only the legs, while others may affect all the limbs at once. Examples of causes include:

  • congestive heart failure
  • lung disorders, such as pulmonary edema
  • problems in the veins of the leg, such as varicose veins or blood clots, also called deep venous thrombosis
  • liver failure, such as cirrhosis
  • kidney failure, such as chronic renal failure or acute renal failure
  • kidney disorders, such as nephrotic syndrome
  • hypothyroidism
  • tumors or cancer
  • infections, such as cellulitis
  • pregnancy
  • certain medications, such as nifedipine, estrogen or corticosteroids
  • low protein in the blood, called hypoalbuminemia, which may be due to malnutrition, kidney disease such as glomerulonephritis, or liver disease, such as hepatitis
  • trauma to the lymph drainage system of a limb, such as swelling in the arm after breast cancer surgery
  • Other causes are also possible. Sometimes, the cause cannot be found.

    Symptoms & Signs

    What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?

    The healthcare provider will want to know certain things about the swelling. These things may include:

  • when the swelling started
  • whether the swelling came on slowly or quickly
  • which limbs are affected
  • whether there is any history of heart problems, liver problems, kidney problems, or blood clots
  • whether the person has ever had swelling in the past
  • what medications the person takes
  • whether or not the swelling goes away when the limb is elevated
  • what other symptoms are present. These may include things such as increased or decreased urination, shortness of breath, fever, pain, or a skin rash.
  • whether there is any family history of swelling in the limbs
  • Other questions may also be asked to help figure out the cause of the swelling.

    Diagnosis & Tests

    How is the condition diagnosed?

    First, a history and physical exam are done. Sometimes this is all that is needed to determine the cause of the swelling. In most cases, however, more tests are needed. The tests used depend on the suspected condition. For example, blood tests are commonly ordered. If heart failure is suspected, a heart tracing, called an ECG, may be obtained. This test looks at the electrical activity of the heart. A chest x-ray and an echocardiogram to look at the heart may also be done in this case. Blood tests and special x-ray tests may also be used to diagnose blood clots and liver or kidney problems. Other tests may be ordered in other cases.

    Prevention & Expectations

    What can be done to prevent the condition?

    Prevention is related to the cause. Most cases cannot be prevented. However, many can be treated.

    What are the long-term effects of the condition?

    If a large amount of swelling is allowed to remain for too long, the skin may break down. Chronic skin changes, skin ulcers, and infections can occur with skin breakdown. However, most long-term effects are related to the cause. For example, liver, heart or kidney diseases can lead to serious disability or even death. Infections of a limb may go away completely and have no long-term effects. In severe cases, however, the limb may need to be amputated.

    What are the risks to others?

    Swelling of the limbs is not contagious and poses no risks to others.

    Treatment & Monitoring

    What are the treatments for the condition?

    Treatment is directed at the cause. For example, an infection of a limb is usually treated with antibiotics. Swelling due to congestive heart failure is often treated with medications such as diuretics. Diuretics make a person urinate more. This often gets rid of extra fluid and decreases swelling. People with a deep venous thrombosis are often put on medications known as blood thinners or anticoagulants, to prevent complications and further blood clots. People with kidney failure may need kidney transplant surgery or dialysis.

    What are the side effects of the treatments?

    All medications have possible side effects. For example, antibiotics may cause allergic reactions or stomach upset. Diuretics may cause allergic reactions or salt imbalances. Other side effects depend on the specific medications used. All surgery carries a risk of infection, bleeding, and reactions to any pain medicines used.

    What happens after treatment for the condition?

    This is mostly related to the cause. For example, pregnant women often need no further treatment for swelling after they deliver the baby. People with liver, kidney or heart disease may need very close monitoring and further treatment for life.

    How is the condition monitored?

    The affected person and the health care provider can monitor the effect of treatment on the swelling. Further monitoring depends on the cause. For example, those with infection as the cause may need a follow-up visit to make sure the swelling goes away after taking antibiotics.


    Author:Adam Brochert, MD
    Date Written:
    Editor:Slon, Stephanie, BA
    Edit Date:06/29/00
    Reviewer:Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
    Date Reviewed:06/06/01


    Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.