Water retention: Causes, symptoms, treatment

Approximately 70% of the human body comprises water, present both inside and outside of the cells.

Our organs, muscles and even bones have high water content.  Water is the essence of our existence but sometimes our body holds on to too much of it. Such excessive fluid build-up in the body leads to water retention.

“Sudden swelling, puffiness or bloating of feet, ankles, hands, fingers and face can seem like weight gain. But, when no amount of dieting or exercise helps and the swelling persists with pain, it can be water retention,” said Dr. Pooja Chaudhary.

What is water retention?

Water retention or fluid retention (medically known as edema) is defined as an excessive build-up of fluid in the circulatory system, body tissues or cavities in the body which can lead to swelling of the hands, feet, ankles and legs. Water retention or edema can be triggered by a lot of different things.

Causes of water retention:

Water retention could be caused due to many reasons, some of the common ones include:

• Diet : Salt (sodium) rich food which are mostly include the processed food like meat, crackers, chips, canned vegetables, soups, fast food and even soft drinks can cause water retention.

• Malnutrition and poor diet : A diet that is low in protein can result in low levels of albumin, which can also lead to water retention.

• Physical inactivity : very long period of physical inactivity, also increase the chances of fluid retention in the body. Sitting or standing for too long can cause the tissue to hold water and cause swelling and pain in the affected areas. It is common after a long journey by car or on an airplane.

• Hormones : Women normally feel bloated or fluffy during the days when they have their menstruation cycle. Fluid retention, associated with hormone changes during the menstrual cycle, can cause breast tenderness, uncomfortable swelling in your hands and feet, abdominal bloating and weight gain. Certain kind of hormonal therapies can also cause water retention.

• Hot weather : During hot weathers, our body tends to be less efficient in removing fluid from the tissues.

• Chronic venous insufficiency : Weakened valves in the veins of the legs fail to efficiently return blood to the heart, resulting in pooling of blood which leads to varicose veins.

Water retention can also be the symptom of serious underlying medical conditions:

• Kidney diseases like nephrotic syndrome, acute glomerulonephritis

• Heart failure

• Chronic lung disease like emphysema

• Malignant lymphoedema is a problem caused by cancer and cancer treatment

• Thyroid disease

• Arthritis

• Allergic reactions

• Autoimmune reactions like lupus

Water retention symptoms: The most common water retention symptoms are:

• Swelling in the affected body parts (feet, ankles and hands)

• Bloated stomach

• Pain in the affected body part

• Stiffness in the joints

• An unexplained fluctuations in weight

• A rapid weight gain over a few days or even weeks

Diagnosis of water retention: In order to get rid of water retention, the most important thing is to get the correct diagnosis and start the treatment accordingly.

The diagnosis procedure includes:

• Proper physical examination

• Medical history of the patient

• A detailed questioning about the fluid retention including when it started, factors that worsen the swelling and whether it is constant or recurrent

• Blood tests

• Urine tests

• Liver function tests

• Kidney function tests

• Chest x-ray

• Heart function tests such as electrocardiogram (ECG)

Treatment for water retention: Once the problem has been diagnosed the treatment can be started. The treatment mostly includes following changes in diet, exercise and the treating the cause directly.

• Treating the causative factor for water retention

• Lifestyle changes according to the underlying medical condition

• If drugs are the cause for fluid retention, then a change in the medication or dose. This has to be supervised by the doctor

• Water pills (Diuretics) can help in reducing the water retention by increasing the frequency of passing urine

• Moving around or light exercise is also helpful

Home remedies and dietary suggestions to prevent water retention:

• Have a low salt diet, as high intake of sodium in the salt can cause water retention

• Increase the magnesium intake in the diet. Good source include nuts, whole grains, dark chocolate, leafy and green vegetables

• Vitamin B6 intake should be increased. Foods rich in vitamin B6 are banana, potatoes, walnuts and meat

• Include potassium rich food as they decrease the sodium levels in the body. Bananas and tomatoes are rich source of potassium

• Drink plenty of water

• Avoid having refined carbs

• Avoid drinks like tea, coffee, alcohol and soda as they can cause dehydration

• Add cranberry juice in your diet

• Include fresh fruits and dairy products in your diet

• To improve circulation, try raising your legs several times in a day

• If the water retention is in lower limb then wearing supporting stockings is advisable

• Avoid sitting and standing still for too long, keep moving between work

• It is advisable to avoid extreme temperatures like hot baths or sauna