Peripheral Edema and Diabetes

close-up of hands checking feet for edema
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Peripheral edema is swelling from the collection of fluid in the feet, ankles, and legs. It can occur in one or both of your lower extremities. If you have diabetes, you need to take extra precautions when you have edema.

Edema is the result of damage to capillaries or increased pressure causing capillaries to leak fluid into surrounding tissues and result in swelling. People with diabetes often have circulation problems that can cause wounds to heal slowly or not at all.

Edema makes it more difficult for wounds to heal. Therefore, controlling edema is essential.

Causes of Peripheral Edema

There are many common causes of edema that are fairly benign. Some examples of more common causes of peripheral edema, not specifically related to diabetes, include physical inactivity, standing or sitting for long periods of time, surgery, burns, hot weather, pregnancy, menstruation, menopause, contraceptive pills, certain medications, excessive salt intake, malnutrition or a bad diet.

Edema may present in only one extremity (rather than both) due to deep venous thrombosis (DVT), cellulitis, osteomyelitis, trauma, a ruptured Baker's cyst or a lymphatic obstruction.

Peripheral edema can also be associated with more serious conditions - many of which can be associated with diabetes complications such as heart disease, venous insufficiency, liver and kidney disease. Certain diabetes medications can also cause edema, specifically the thiazolidinedione drugs Actos and Avandia.

In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration issued a safety alert regarding Avandia and the increased risk of heart attacks or other cardiac events. The FDA recommends physicians watch patients taking this drug for signs of heart failure--including edema.

People with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease or heart failure (such as congestive heart failure).

If the patient has neuropathy, the symptoms of heart disease or failure may not be felt. It is important for a patient with diabetes to alert their physician when they experience the signs and symptoms of edema.

Signs and Symptoms of Peripheral Edema

  • Stretched skin or shiny skin.
  • Swelling or puffiness.
  • Edema can be pitting or non-pitting, indicating different causes.

What to Do if You Have Peripheral Edema and Diabetes

If you experience edema, let your doctor know so he or she can rule out serious complications. Here are some things you can do to help manage foot and leg edema.

  • Elevate the affected leg or foot throughout the day.
  • Wear support stockings (check with your doctor if you have arterial disease).
  • Exercise.
  • Follow a low-sodium diet.
  • If you have a wound, cellulitis, dermatitis, scaling or itching make sure these are addressed in your care plan.

Call your doctor as soon as possible if swelling does not improve, worsens, if you have liver disease and experience swelling in your legs or abdomen, if your swollen extremity is red or warm, you have a fever, you notice decreased urine output or if you are pregnant and have sudden moderate to severe swelling.

When to See the Doctor Immediately

New onset edema either bilateral (in both extremities) or unilateral (in one extremity) should be evaluated urgently. Unilateral edema may indicate an urgent need to be evaluated for DVT.

Call 911 if you experience shortness of breath or chest pain.


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Diabetes, Heart Disease and Stroke. National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. Accessed: May 27, 2010.

Mudalair MD FACE, Sunder; Chang MD, Anna R; Henry MD, Robert R. "Thiazolidinediones, peripheral edema, and Type 2 diabetes: Incidence, pathophysiology, and clinical implications." Endocrine Practice September/October 2003 9(5):406-416

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