Leg Swelling

Published: January 1, 2009

I was born with a heart murmur, and it has never really bothered me. At age 76, my family doctor heard the heart skip and referred me to a cardiologist who suggested a cardioversion to give me more pep. It went well. Five hours later, however, my legs began to swell, and it turned into a recurring problem. Doctors find nothing wrong. I feel great but get upset when my legs and knees swell. I am active and have no other health problems. Do you have any suggestions about what to do or help in any way?

It sounds like you underwent an electrical cardioversion (a shock to the heart delivered through patches on the chest, or done with drugs) for atrial fibrillation, and your heart is now in a regular (sinus) rhythm. If that is not the case, or your heart is no longer in a sinus rhythm, perhaps the cardioversion needs to be repeated. Many heart murmurs are “functional,” that is, noises caused by swirling blood, and are unimportant. Also, some heart defects that cause a murmur at birth correct themselves over time. Regardless, you are now seventy-six, so it is possible that the heart murmur heard at birth is related to your present problem. A careful physical examination or echocardiogram would tell.

Swelling of the legs and knees is usually due to fluid that escapes from the blood vessels and leaks into the tissue, making them “puff up.” The most common causes of the edema you describe include heart problems such as heart failure, kidney troubles, and local leg problems such as phlebitis, or stasis—that is, legs in a dependent position (such as when you are sitting down) for prolonged time periods. The latter is common in older women who have had children. If the edema is due to stasis, the fluid is usually noticeably less in the morning after being recumbent during sleep. Sitting with your legs elevated on a hassock or something similar, and the use of elastic support hose available in most drugstores, can be helpful. If that doesn’t work, a mild diuretic can be tried. However, if the swelling is due to heart or kidney disease (atrial fibrillation can cause heart failure that can cause edema), you need to see your doctor and get professional advice from a specialist.

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