Women's Healthcare Topics

Swelling During Pregnancy, What's Normal and What's Not?

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

Swelling (Edema) is Very Common in Pregnancy

Swelling during pregnancy is quite common. In fact most if not all pregnant women will experience swelling during some part of their pregnancy. Some women tend to swell more than others. Swelling from water retention can contribute up to 25% of the weight gain during pregnancy.

In the second and third trimester, you may start to experience water retention that causes mild swelling in your hands, face, ankles, abdominal wall and vulva. This is called "edema," and it's quite common when you're expecting.

Swelling is basically a result of compromised circulation. Your enlarged uterus places pressure on the blood vessels in your pelvis and legs. That pressure slows your circulation down. That compromised circulation causes blood to pool and push fluid into your tissue, hence swelling.

What Increases Swelling during Pregnancy

There are certain lifestyle habits that can contribute to swelling during pregnancy.

  • Hot or humid conditions which can contribute to water retention.

  • Not drinking enough water, this can trigger the body to retain fluid.

  • Standing for long periods of time, this can cause pooling of your blood and push fluid into the tissue that results in swelling.

  • Over consumption of diuretic foods like caffeine. Like not drinking enough water this can trigger your body to retain liquid.

  • High salt intake from processed foods during the day will cause retention of water.

Tips to Reduce Swelling in Pregnancy

In most cases, swelling during pregnancy is normal. To minimize your edema, or swelling during pregnancy, you should avoid foods that are high in salt, or sodium. Salt-laced foods can make your swelling worse. Other steps that you can take to reduce swelling include:

  • Exercising on a regular, if not daily, basis. (Unless your doctor has warned against it, light or moderate exercise during pregnancy is healthy, and it may ease many of your pregnancy aches and pains.)

  • Don't stay standing for extended periods of time. If your job forces you to remain standing for a long time, you should stretch your legs when you can, and shift the weight between each leg.

  • Consider wearing maternity support hose. While support hose isn't exactly stylish, it may help promote blood circulation in your lower extremities.

  • When you are resting, you should always lay on your sides, left better than right. This may minimize swelling.
Learn tips on how to reduce swelling in pregnancy.

Pitting Edema – Severe Swelling

Severe swelling or edema is usually detected by the presence of pitting after pressure is applied to your swollen ankles for at least five seconds. Pitting reflects movement of the excess water from the tissue where pressure was applied.

Physicians commonly grade pitting edema from 1+ to 4+ (mild to severe). Although there is no agreed upon definition of these grades, this type of grading scheme may help your physician record relative changes in your swelling. Your physician will also watch your weight gain, for a sudden increase in weight in a short period of time is an ominous sign.

Swelling is a Warning Sign of Pre-Eclampsia

Although a little swelling is normal and nothing to worry about in pregnancy, sudden swelling in the face or hands may be a sign of preeclampsia – a serious pregnancy complication that is marked by high blood pressure and a protein in the urine. If you notice sudden swelling that causes you to gain more than a few pounds within a small window of time, contact your doctor or healthcare provider right away.

Preeclampsia can be life-threatening to mother and baby, so you want to pay extra attention to sudden swelling. Bad headaches, upper abdominal pain and blurred vision are all other symptoms that you may have developed this condition. Your doctor can take prompt action to ensure your safety and that of your baby.


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