Essential oils for oedema (fluid retention)

Oedema (fluid retention) can occur in any part of the body, but typically develops in the legs, feet, ankles, arms and hands. This article explores the relevant anatomy and physiology, possible causes and symptoms, along with self-help remedies.

What is oedema? 

Oedema is swelling or puffiness that occurs when there is a build-up of fluid in the body tissues. When oedema starts to develop, it is caused by an imbalance between the amount of fluid in the tissues and its transport system, the lymphatic system.

The Lymphatic system

The lymphatic system is part of the body’s circulatory system and plays an important role in maintaining fluid balance, by collecting and draining tissue fluid, as well as toxins and cellular debris from all parts of the body. It is also part of the body’s immune response and disease resistance system.

When blood is circulated round the body, fluid known as plasma is leaked from tiny blood vessels which brings vital oxygen and nutrients to our tissues. While most of this tissue fluid returns into the blood capillary walls and back into the blood stream, some is left behind. This fluid is collected by lymph capillaries, along with any cellular waste, and becomes known as ‘lymph’. Lymph is then transported around the lymphatic system. It is cleaned and filtered by lymph nodes and passed into lymph ducts to be returned to the blood stream. For more detailed information read our blog on the Lymphatic System.

Causes of oedema

Under normal circumstances the lymph capillaries will prevent the accumulation of tissue fluid, but there are many reasons as to why oedema can still occur.

For example, pregnancy, premenstrual tension, allergic reactions, injuries such as sprains and strains, medications, and underlying medical conditions such as heart problems, liver or kidney disease and certain cancers can all cause oedema. There is also an increased risk of developing oedema if you have a poor diet, a sedentary (inactive) lifestyle and are overweight. Other common causes are heat and standing or sitting in the same position for extended periods of time.

As there are many factors that can cause oedema, it is important to see your GP if you believe you are suffering from the condition, as they will be able to diagnose whether there is an underlying cause.

Symptoms of oedema  

The main symptoms are puffiness or swelling which can cause discomfort and tightness. If the swelling occurs in the feet and lower legs it may become worse as the day progresses, making moving around more difficult. In more severe cases, left untreated, oedema can cause increased pain and stiffness, stretched, uncomfortable, itchy skin, infection in the swollen area (e.g. cellulitis), decreased blood circulation and ulcers.

In mild cases the swelling should go away on its own and there are several things that you can do to help. If you have any concerns, you should seek the advice of 111 or your GP.

Self-help remedies for oedema

To help prevent oedema in the lower limbs you should try to avoid standing or sitting for prolonged periods of time. If you have a desk-based job, it is advisable to move around frequently throughout the day to aid lymph flow. Unlike blood, lymph isn’t pumped around the body. It is squeezed through the lymph vessels when we use our muscles and lungs. Movement and exercise are therefore important for maintaining a healthy flow of lymph. I would however always recommend having a chat with your G.P before starting any kind of exercise regime to ensure that it is safe for you to do so.

Wearing loose clothing can help prevent swelling. Tight clothing, especially around the abdomen, feet and ankles can restrict circulation and make it more difficult for the lymphatic system to work effectively. If you already have oedema however, your GP may advise you to wear support stockings which are specifically designed to improve circulation and reduce pain and swelling. You should also choose comfortable, wide fitting shoes with a low heel.

Lying down and raising swollen limbs with pillows can help move extra fluid back towards the heart for circulation to the rest of the body. The aim is to raise the limb slightly above heart level. When sleeping, it may help to put a pillow under your legs. 

Dry skin brushing can help encourage lymph flow too. This can be done very easily by briskly brushing the surface of the skin with a soft brush before a shower or bath, beginning at your feet and working up the body in a direction towards the heart. 

Complementary health therapies may also be used to help alleviate some of the symptoms of oedema. Indeed, you may recall that in my article on massage, massage techniques, such as effleurage and petrissage, follow the venous flow of the blood along the limb to the heart.  These types of techniques are used in aromatherapy massage and can support the lymphatic system by increasing lymph flow and helping lymph nodes drain. Regular aromatherapy massage treatments in which essential oils with diuretic properties are used can therefore improve the blood and lymphatic circulatory systems.  The following essential oils are said to be diuretic: Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) Juniperberry (Juniperus communis) Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), Mandarin (Citrus reticulata), Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis) and Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis).  

A build-up of toxic waste can contribute towards fluid retention as the body tries to dilute the toxins to render them less harmful. In such cases, using essential oils with detoxifying properties, such as Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), Juniperberry (Juniperus communis) and Lemon (Citrus limon) may also be helpful.

Aromatherapy blends for oedema

Although it is more effective for massage to be carried out by a professional aromatherapist, self-massage can be used at home on a daily basis in between treatments. Bathing with Epsom salts and essential oils can also provide some comfort and help reduce swelling. 

Foot and Leg Massage Oil

12ml of Sunflower oil
1 drop of Lemon essential oil*
2 drops of Cypress essential oil
4 drops of Rosemary essential oil**

* Phototoxic - do not use prior to exposure to sunlight.
** Do not use if you suffer from high blood pressure or epilepsy.

Blend the essential oils in the carrier oil and apply to the foot and leg with long, firm strokes moving from the foot upwards in a direction towards the heart.

If you prefer a non-oily medium or if you're using in summer, you could try our Foot Spa Massage Gel. Blended with Aloe Vera, Witch Hazel, Cypress and Lime this cooling gel is ideal for supporting the circulation and revitalising hot, heavy and tired feet.

Hand and Arm Massage Oil

12ml of Sunflower oil
2 drops of Sweet orange essential oil
4 drops of Geranium essential oil

Blend the essential oils in the carrier oil and apply to the hand and arm with long, firm strokes in a direction towards the heart.

Bathing Blend

A cup of Epsom salt
1 drop of Mandarin essential oil
2 drops of Juniperberry essential oil*** 

***Do not use if you suffer from kidney disease or if pregnant.

Mix the ingredients and bathe in a cool Epsom salt bath for 15 to 20 minutes.

Finally, nutrition can play an important role in helping reduce oedema.  Remove potential food allergens, such as dairy, wheat and sugar. Reduce salt whilst increasing foods such as spinach and kale, both of which have B-vitamins and iron.  Vegetables such as asparagus, parsley, onions, leeks and garlic are natural diuretics, so you may wish to add these to your diet. Do check with your GP first though, as some foods can interact with diuretic medications.  I would also recommend avoiding alcohol and tobacco. 

If your fluid retention is related to your menstrual cycle you might like to try our PMT Pure essential oil blend.

Christine Fisk                                  
Consultant Aromatherapist           

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