What is oedema?

You may have been told that your swollen pregnancy ankles are a case of 'oedema'. But what is it, and what can be done about it?

Although swollen ankles can be a sign of pre-eclampsia, it is usually just one of the many lesser discomforts of pregnancy.
If your midwife of doctor is at all concerned about pre-eclampsia, their mind and yours will be put at rest with a quick urine sample (routinely check regularly throughout your pregnancy).
Most likely, you simply have swollen ankles, or, if you want to sound more scientific, ‘oedema’.

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What is oedema?
This is a swelling due to excess fluid building up, causing your ankles or legs (usually) to appear as if they have been inflated. It can be only a minor swelling or seem to look very bad. It affects as many as three-quarters of all pregnant women at some point during pregnancy (and sometimes for a brief time after the birth, espcially if you have needed surgery requiring you to stay in bed).
Women usually don’t notice it coming on until they sit down at the end of the day and put their feet up, or they find that as the day progresses, their shoes or boots feel more uncomfortable. If they take their shoes off, they find them hard to slip back on again when it’s time to go home!
It most usually appears more if you have been on your feet for a long time or it is a hot day. Some women who are in the later months of pregnancy during the cooler seasons might not suffer so badly with oedema, but it can strike even in winter, so don’t be too alarmed if it happens to you, and follow some of the tips below.

How can it be treated?
If you have swollen ankles, the best thing is to put your feet up and rest. If you are sitting on the sofa (making sure you and your bump are supported well so you don’t get a stiff back), put your feet on a pillow on the sofa so they are slightly raised. If this doesn’t work try raising your feet a little more if you can (with another cushion under them).
Keep up your fluids. Drinking water helps flush your system through and can actually help to guard against water retention. (Drink it steadily through the day rather than over-filling in one sitting.)
Reduce your salt intake, especially on hot days or when you are in a hot and stuffy environment (even in winter you can find yourself getting too hot and sweaty).
Try to avoid tight-fitting shoes and hosiery. Some women find pregnancy support tights may actually help to keep the swelling at bay but discuss this with your doctor or midwife.

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If the swelling does not go down overnight or after a few hours and is affecting your hands and/or face, call your midwife or doctor. Again, it might just be swelling due to heat, but they can quickly check to ensure pre-eclampsia is not an issue.

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