Etiology and diagnosis of bilateral leg edema in primary care

Am J Med. 1998 Sep;105(3):192-7. doi: 10.1016/s0002-9343(98)00235-6.


Purpose: To identify the causes of bilateral leg edema in a primary care setting, and to determine the ability of primary care providers to arrive at the correct diagnosis using the information available at the initial clinical encounter.

Patients and methods: Fifty-eight ambulatory adult patients with bilateral leg edema were enrolled at an inner city family practice during a 3-year period. Historical information, physical examination findings, and clinical impressions of primary care providers were compared with the results of laboratory evaluations consisting of echocardiograms, venous duplex ultrasound leg scans, serum albumin levels, and when appropriate, 24-hour urinalyses.

Results: Forty-five patients (78%) completed the study. The initial clinical impression was venous insufficiency in 32 (71%) patients and congestive heart failure in 8 (18%) patients. In actuality, 15 (33%) patients had a cardiac condition as a cause of their leg edema, and 19 (42%) had pulmonary hypertension. All of the patients with heart disease, and almost all of those with pulmonary hypertension, were age 45 years or older. Only 10 (22%) of the subjects had venous insufficiency. Renal conditions, medication use, and hypoalbuminemia were less common.

Conclusions: Utilizing clinical information only, many patients with cardiopulmonary pathology were incorrectly diagnosed as having more benign conditions, most commonly venous insufficiency. Echocardiographic evaluation, including an estimation of pulmonary artery pressure, may be advisable in many patients with bilateral leg edema, especially if they are at least 45 years old.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Edema / etiology*
  • Family Practice
  • Humans
  • Ohio
  • Primary Health Care
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Urban Population
  • Venous Insufficiency / complications
  • Venous Insufficiency / diagnosis*