Swelling During Pregnancy – Causes, Symptoms & Prevention

Swelling is a very common symptom that most expectant mothers experience at some point or another during the pregnancy. For most, this symptom occurs during the later months of pregnancy or when one is exposed to warm or humid climate conditions.

In some cases, swelling can indicate the presence of a severe condition, or this symptom could be mistaken for weight gain. The following tips can help expectant mothers better understand the causes of swelling during pregnancy, recognize signs, and learn a few ways that the swelling can be managed and alleviated.

Causes of Swelling During Pregnancy

Swelling during pregnancy is usually benign and has little cause for worry. The primary cause of swelling is excessive fluid buildup in the tissues of the body. As tissues collect more fluid, they expand, which eventually becomes detectable through the enlargement of one’s extremities. During pregnancy, the body’s blood cell production increases by 50 percent; this in itself is enough to produce mild swelling in the hands, feet, and legs.

Water retention is another cause of swelling during pregnancy. As a mother’s body attempts to adjust to the fetus’s rapid growth rate, it begins to hoard water and other nutrients in an attempt to build up an emergency supply. This is a clever process that serves as a backup plan if the mother or fetus needs a last-minute water supply or nutrients.

Edema may come and go throughout the pregnancy, or it may seem a constant symptom in the last couple of months. Most women find that the swelling goes away within the first week after giving birth.

Symptoms of Pregnancy-Related Swelling

The symptoms of pregnancy swelling can vary from woman to woman. The most common symptom is the enlargement of the feet, ankles, and calves, which may be exacerbated by sitting or standing for long periods.

You may also experience enlargement of your fingers, hands, and wrists. During the last trimester of pregnancy, it is not uncommon for swelling to increase in the legs due to pressure exerted onto the vena cava, a major vein responsible for supplying the legs with blood. As the size of the fetus increases, the womb places excess weight and pressure onto the pelvic region and the vena cava, which can cause several symptoms ranging from swelling to numbness and tingling. Mom-to-be may experience temporary limitations with shoes and jewelry, especially rings until the swelling goes down.

A typical symptom associated with swelling includes tightness of the skin which can make it difficult to flex and clench one’s fingers and toes. This tight sensation can range from mildly annoying to outright painful and make it difficult to perform tasks such as writing, typing, and playing instruments. Where swelling is significant, mom-to-be may notice that her skin becomes darker or pink-colored. This is a result of excess blood pooling in the tissues of that region which causes the skin to take on a pink or red tint. The veins may also rise and become more pronounced under the skin.

Possible Complications or Underlying Conditions

While a certain amount of swelling is usually not a cause for concern, there are times when swelling could be a sign that all is not well within the body. For instance, excessive swelling of the hands, sudden and extreme swelling in the feet, and swelling in the face (especially around the eyes) are all possible indicators of preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia is a severe medical condition that most often occurs after 37 weeks of pregnancy. However, it can be developed at any time during pregnancy or in the first two days after giving birth. This condition causes the blood vessels within the body to constrict, resulting in poor blood flow and high blood pressure. If left untreated, preeclampsia can damage major organs such as the brain, heart, and liver and even be fatal.

The development of DVT, or deep vein thrombosis, is another possible risk during pregnancy. DVT is often characterized by swelling of just one leg. Studies show that in most cases involving pregnant women, the left leg seems to be the one most likely to experience swelling. DVT involves developing a blood clot within a deep vein, usually in the thigh or calf area. The blood clot can make it difficult for blood to flow throughout the leg, causing a buildup of blood inside various tissues, resulting in swelling. Other symptoms of DVT include redness or discoloration, excess warmth, visible veins just under the surface of the skin, and pain or fatigue in the affected leg. DVT can be life-threatening if the blood clot breaks free and reaches the brain or lungs.

Tips for Managing Swelling during Pregnancy

Although one may not be able to eliminate all swelling, several techniques can be used to reduce the severity of swelling and make mom-to-be more comfortable.

  • The first and most effective measure in reducing swelling in the legs and feet is to elevate these extremities whenever possible. The legs should be slightly elevated to keep above heart level when lying on your back. When sitting in a chair or on a sofa, you can prop your legs up on a few pillows, an ottoman, or another chair.
  • Swelling can also be reduced by cutting down on time spent standing or sitting in one position.
  • Wearing comfortable, properly fitted shoes can also go a long way in restoring comfort and reducing swelling. On hot days one should try to stay in air-conditioned rooms or soak in a cool bath.
  • Wearing tight clothing, especially around your waist, calves, ankles, and wrists, can worsen swelling. Instead, wear loose-fitting, comfortable maternity clothes to let the blood flow to all parts of your body. In the summer, long maternity maxi dresses, and for the winter, flowy cardigans or sweaters with super stretchable maternity leggings can be both cute and comfortable.
  • Limit your sodium (or salt) intake as it causes your body to retain excess water.
  • Increase your potassium intake as it helps regulate fluid balance in your body.
  • Drinking too much caffeine can also make swelling worse.

In most cases, swelling during pregnancy isn’t anything to worry about as long as the symptoms are carefully watched and managed. When swelling develops quickly, becomes extreme, or seems limited to one part of the body, a doctor should be contacted immediately.

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