How do you treat swollen legs in the elderly?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mom's legs are swollen from the knees down. The doctor put her on water pills. Now only the right leg is swollen. What can I do? I rub them for her. Will that help?

Expert Answer

Laura Cheney, a physical therapist who specializes in geriatrics, graduated with honors from the University of California at San Francisco in 2000. She loves her job working as the sole physical therapist at a premier life-care facility in San Francisco. She has written articles and lectured extensively on fall prevention and other issues relevant to the aging experience. As a registered yoga teacher, she teaches yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness techniques to seniors -- helping them expand their repertoire for coping with stress, pain, and illness in the later years.


Edema, or swelling, in the legs can be common in the elderly. There are many reasons why this would happen and it is important to check in with your doctor about it. Beyond that, there are some things you can do to help. Basically, you want to try to fight the effects of gravity that keep the fluid down in the lower part of your mom’s legs. Compression stockings can be purchased at medical supply stores and can assist in controlling the edema. It is important to make sure the rim of the stocking is not cutting off the circulation—you simply want the broad dispersed pressure from the stockings to keep the fluid from settling into her legs.  Gentle massage with a broad hand with strokes in the upward direction can also be helpful. And simply propping her feet up when sitting or lying down can assist gravity in returning the fluid to the heart. And while she has her feet propped up, she can move her ankles back and forth 10-20 times like she is “stepping on the gas” in order to get the calf muscle working to help pump the fluid back to her heart as well. If you ever notice any red areas, warmth, or pain in her swollen calves you would want to contact her doctor right away as this could indicate the formation of a blood clot.