Edema Treatment for the Arm and Hand

Edema, or swelling, of the arm or hand can be a result of many different conditions. Edema may be caused by abnormal movement of fluids, such as blood and lymph, in or out of the extremity. Edema can be extra fluid that is part of the body’s inflammatory response. Some examples of causes might be trauma, tight wraps or braces, lack of use, or whole-body problems of swelling. It can occur from too much fluid into the arm and hand or not enough draining out. In contrast to edema that is all over the limb or body, swelling or extra fluid specifically within a joint is called an “effusion.”
Figure 1
Keeping your arm elevated decreases edema; do not leave arm in dependent position, which can increase swelling.


Edema of the arm or hand can be caused by:
  • Trauma
  • Surgery
  • Acute injury
  • Chronic condition
  • Overuse
  • Lack of use of limb
  • Tight casts, wraps, or braces
  • Systemic conditions
  • Blood clot
  • Dependent position of limb (below level of heart)

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of edema are:
  • Fullness and swelling of the arm or hand
  • When pushing on the area, the finger leaves behind an indented imprint
  • Pain
  • Decreased mobility
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Redness
  • Shiny skin
  • Decreased wrinkling on hand and fingers


Check with your surgeon or doctor about swelling thatseems more than expected. Edema can be unpredictable following an injury or ailment of the arm or hand. It is normal to expect some edema initially following trauma, and it can potentially last weeks or months depending on the injury and the patient’s health.

A frustrating concept patients experience is that the swelling may be gone one day and back the next. Many patients relate that they have good movement when they go to bed, but then they wake the next morning stiff and swollen. This can be very normal. Edema can be part of a cycle that causes stiffness and limited mobility, or it can be the result of overuse or underuse of the hand or arm. One of the best things to decrease edema from injury or lack of use is active movement, which forces the contraction of muscles to move the fluid. This can be difficult due to the extra pressure and potential pain associated with the movement of the injured and swollen area.

Here are several treatments and options you can try:

  • Talk to your surgeon or doctor for specific treatment options for your condition
  • Retrograde massage
  • Ice intervals or alternating ice and moist heat
  • Compression within moderation of the upper extremity that still allows normal function (compression examples include Coban wrapping, edema gloves, and stockinette wrapping)
  • Rest if overuse is the cause of the edema
  • Activity modification
  • Elevation at intervals
  • Active exercises when pain allows

If edema or swelling continues to be painful or unchanged following these modifications and treatments, seek further help from your doctor, hand surgeon, or specialized hand therapist for more evaluation of the source and options specific to in-person treatment.

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