The swelling (called edema) may be caused by tiny blood vessels leaking fluid into the surrounding tissue, making the area swell like a balloon at a birthday party. Although you can develop edema just from sitting at your desk for too long, persistent swelling can also indicate congestive heart failure, as well as lung, liver, kidney and thyroid diseases.
“If you have swelling of the legs or ankles, you need to get your heart checked out,” says Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director of New York University's Women's Heart Program. “Edema is what you see, but there can be an underlying heart problem, like that the blood isn’t returning to your heart fast enough, or a kidney problem. If only one leg is swollen and painful, there can be a blood clot in the vein, known as deep vein thrombosis, or DVT.” Having a family history of blood clots puts you at risk for DVT, along with taking oral contraceptives and sitting for hours on long plane or car rides.
WATCH VIDEO: A Review of Edema
Check your toes
While we’re focused on the lower extremities, another indicator to look out for is sores on the feet or toes that are super-slow to heal, or persistent redness and skin color changes. If diabetes isn’t to blame, peripheral arterial disease, or PAD, may be at play. The condition crops up when arteries in the arms, legs and feet get clogged with fatty deposits, which reduces blood flow to the legs. The lack of blood flow not only slows wound healing on the surface, it can also bring on leg muscle pain when you walk. What’s more, having blocked arteries in the legs means you’re likely to have them elsewhere in the body—including the heart—which makes PAD a red flag for heart disease.
Don’t ignore skin issues
There are also certain skin conditions that go hand-in-hand with heart problems. “All autoimmune diseases—psoriasis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis—have been related to an accelerated risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Joan M. Bathon, M.D., director of the division of rheumatology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.
“Some of these conditions have more obvious outward appearances than others, affecting the skin, while some affect the joints. The skin is one of those organs that could be considered a mirror of your heart health.” Severe cases of psoriasis (a skin condition that rears its ugly head as itchy, flaky, scaly patches of skin anywhere on the body, including the nails, possibly leaving them rippled or pitted) are an independent risk factor of heart disease. That’s because psoriasis is an inflammatory condition that can cause chronic, body-wide inflammation, which ups your chances of a heart attack.
Other facial clues to keep an eye out for is a rash across the nose and cheeks, which gets worse after being in the sun, notes Bathon. Although it might look like a harmless case of rosacea or blushing, a pink or red rashy patch may be caused by another inflammatory autoimmune disease – lupus, which can destroy your joints, skin and other organs and is linked to cardiovascular disease.
If you spot any of these red flags, let your physician know pronto. He or she can assess the real risk based on your personal and family health history—and take steps to help protect your heart.
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