What is an Edema?

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An allergic reaction can cause capillaries in the hand to leak excess fluid that accumulates in the tissues. (credit: Jane Whitney)

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

Edema is the accumulation of excess water in the tissues. It is most common in the soft tissues of the extremities. The physiological causes of edema include water leakage from blood capillaries. Edema is almost always caused by an underlying medical condition, by the use of certain therapeutic drugs, by pregnancy, by localized injury, or by an allergic reaction. In the limbs, the symptoms of edema include swelling of the subcutaneous tissues, an increase in the normal size of the limb, and stretched, tight skin. One quick way to check for subcutaneous edema localized in a limb is to press a finger into the suspected area. Edema is likely if the depression persists for several seconds after the finger is removed (which is called “pitting”).

Pulmonary edema is excess fluid in the air sacs of the lungs, a common symptom of heart and/or kidney failure. People with pulmonary edema likely will experience difficulty breathing, and they may experience chest pain. Pulmonary edema can be life threatening, because it compromises gas exchange in the lungs, and anyone having symptoms should immediately seek medical care.

In pulmonary edema resulting from heart failure, excessive leakage of water occurs because fluids get “backed up” in the pulmonary capillaries of the lungs, when the left ventricle of the heart is unable to pump sufficient blood into the systemic circulation. Because the left side of the heart is unable to pump out its normal volume of blood, the blood in the pulmonary circulation gets “backed up,” starting with the left atrium, then into the pulmonary veins, and then into pulmonary capillaries. The resulting increased hydrostatic pressure within pulmonary capillaries, as blood is still coming in from the pulmonary arteries, causes fluid to be pushed out of them and into lung tissues.

Other causes of edema include damage to blood vessels and/or lymphatic vessels, or a decrease in osmotic pressure in chronic and severe liver disease, where the liver is unable to manufacture plasma proteins. A decrease in the normal levels of plasma proteins results in a decrease of colloid osmotic pressure (which counterbalances the hydrostatic pressure) in the capillaries. This process causes loss of water from the blood to the surrounding tissues, resulting in edema.

Mild, transient edema of the feet and legs may be caused by sitting or standing in the same position for long periods of time, as in the work of a toll collector or a supermarket cashier. This is because deep veins in the lower limbs rely on skeletal muscle contractions to push on the veins and thus “pump” blood back to the heart. Otherwise, the venous blood pools in the lower limbs and can leak into surrounding tissues.

Medications that can result in edema include vasodilators, calcium channel blockers used to treat hypertension, non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, estrogen therapies, and some diabetes medications. Underlying medical conditions that can contribute to edema include congestive heart failure, kidney damage and kidney disease, disorders that affect the veins of the legs, and cirrhosis and other liver disorders.

Therapy for edema usually focuses on elimination of the cause. Activities that can reduce the effects of the condition include appropriate exercises to keep the blood and lymph flowing through the affected areas. Other therapies include elevation of the affected part to assist drainage, massage and compression of the areas to move the fluid out of the tissues, and decreased salt intake to decrease sodium and water retention.

Source:

Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax.

Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology


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