The medical term for swelling is ‘edema‘ and it’s caused by the buildup of fluids in the body.
Many individuals experience paralyzed legs after spinal cord injury, which limits mobility and contributes to swelling.
Dependent edema describes the way gravity affects swelling in the arms and legs. Gravity pulls fluids down, causing them to pool in lower areas of your body like the legs.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce leg swelling after spinal cord injury.
How to Reduce Leg Swelling After Spinal Cord Injury
SCI affects functions below your level of injury. Because leg functions are innervated by the lower segments of the spinal cord, all spinal cord injury patients experience some degree of weakness or paralysis in their legs.
Regular leg movements are necessary to promote blood flow back to the heart. However, with spinal cord injury, leg movements are limited, which can cause blood to pool in the legs.
Here are 8 tips for treating swelling in the legs after spinal cord injury:
1. Move More
When you don’t move enough, blood can start to pool in the legs.
So what can you do to be more active when your mobility is limited?
Passive range of motion exercises are exercises that don’t require paralyzed areas of the body to exert any energy.
If you have normal upper body functions, you can use your arms and a resistance band to move your legs.
If your upper extremities are also paralyzed or very weak as a result of spinal cord injury, ask your caregiver, physical therapist, or nurse to move your legs.
Passive range of motion exercises promote circulation and prevent joint stiffness.
2. Limit Sodium Consumption
Eating foods with too much sodium can cause the body to hold onto fluids.
Try limiting your sodium intake to reduce swelling.
Instead, try to consume more fruits and vegetables. They have high water content and are naturally low in sodium.
3) Elevate Your Legs
Just like gravity pulls excess fluids to the legs, elevating your legs can cause gravity to direct fluid back to the heart.
Stack a few pillows on top of each other and place your legs on them while you sleep or whenever you’re laying down. It’s a good idea to have your heels floating off the edge of the pillows (as in the picture above), to minimize the risk of pressure sores developing on your heels.
4) Drink More Water
Swelling is caused by excess fluid in the body, so it might seem contradictory to drink more water.
Dehydration can cause the body to hold onto fluid because it doesn’t know when you’re going to replenish its supply.
Make sure that you’re drinking enough water throughout the day so that your body understands that there’s no need to store it for later.
5) Wear Compression Stockings
Wearing compression stockings or socks adds pressure to the legs to increase blood pressure and help to move some out of the extra fluid out of your legs. Although low blood pressure is more common in patients with SCI than high blood pressure, it would still be a good idea to talk to your doctor to see if compression stockings are safe for you and your particular medical history.
Make sure they are not too loose or too tight to ensure their effectiveness and avoid complications. Also, make sure there are no big wrinkles once the compression stockings are on. This can act as a tourniquet on your leg, making swelling worse in a particular area, and can also put you at risk for autonomic dysreflexia.
6) Massage Your Legs
Massaging your legs can help stimulate circulation and reduce swelling.
Like compression stockings, the additional pressure helps increase blood pressure and helps to move the extra fluids out of your legs.
Try massaging your legs in an upward motion (starting at your feet and moving towards your heart) to redirect pooled fluids back to the heart.
7) Avoid Hot Temperatures
Warm temperatures can cause your blood vessels to expand (vasodilation).
They expand so that heat in your blood can get closer to the surface of the skin and evaporate to cool you off.
Keeping cool will promote narrowing of the blood vessels (vasoconstriction) to reduce swelling.
Some actions you can take to avoid vasodilation include:
- Carry around a spray bottle with water in it
- Stay out of direct sunlight
- Wear easy-to-remove layers
- Drink lots of water
8) Inspect Your Body Regularly
Many spinal cord injury patients don’t notice when they are injured or their skin is irritated because of their impaired sensation.
Daily body inspections can help identify complications below your level of injury.
Secondary spinal cord injury complications that can result in leg swelling include heterotopic ossification and deep vein thrombosis.
Heterotopic ossification is when abnormal bone growth occurs in soft tissue below your level of injury. It is caused by miscommunication between the brain and body after SCI, which signals bone cells to make bones where they shouldn’t be. The abnormal growth can cause swelling in the legs.
Deep vein thrombosis is when blood clots form in your legs due to physical inactivity. The accumulation can cause swelling and limit blood flow from your legs to the heart.
Especially if only one leg is swelling, it is usually a sign of blood clotting.
Frequent body inspections will help identify complications early and allow you to manage them before they progress. If you do notice signs of a deep vein thrombosis, seek medical attention immediately as they can be dangerous and life threatening.
Understanding Leg Swelling After Spinal Cord Injury
Swelling in the legs after spinal cord injury can be caused by a combination of factors including:
- sodium levels
- physical inactivity
- warm weather
It’s essential for blood and fluid levels in your body to be balanced for optimal performance.
The more efficiently blood travels throughout the body, the more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to fuel cellular activity.
Now that you know what actions you can take to reduce swelling, we hope you try them out for yourself!
Featured images: ©iStock/Srisakorn/inewsistock/adrian825/venusphoto/Geo-grafika/Kritchanut/tommaso79/tongpatong