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Edema is swelling of any organ or tissue due to accumulation of excess fluid. Edema has many root causes, but its common mechanism is accumulation of fluid into the tissues.
Types of edema are pitting edema and non-pitting edema. The former is present if pressing of the affected body part creates a small pit that disappears within a few seconds. Non-pitting edema is not compressible.
Last Updated - 25th November 2005
What is edema?
Edema is an observable swelling in certain parts of the body. Edema most commonly occurs in the feet and legs, where it also is referred to as peripheral edema. The swelling is the result of the accumulation of excess fluid under the skin in the spaces within the tissues that are outside of the blood vessels. These spaces are known as interstitial spaces or compartments. Most of the body's fluids that are found outside of the cells are normally stored in two spaces; the blood vessels (where the fluids are called the blood volume) and the interstitial spaces (where the fluids are called the interstitial fluid).
In various diseases, excess fluid can accumulate in either one or both of these compartments. The body's organs also have interstitial spaces where fluid can accumulate. For example, an accumulation of fluid in the interstitial air spaces (alveoli) in the lungs occurs in heart failure and is called pulmonary edema. In addition, excess fluid sometimes collects in what has been called the third space, which includes cavities in the abdomen (abdominal or peritoneal cavity) or in the chest (lung or pleural cavity). The term anasarca refers to the severe, widespread accumulation of fluid in the various tissues and cavities of the body.
What is pitting edema and how does it differ from non-pitting edema?
Pitting edema can be demonstrated by applying pressure to, for example, the skin of a swollen leg, by depressing the skin with a finger. If the pressing causes an indentation in the skin that persists for some time after the release of the pressure, the edema is referred to as pitting edema. Actually, any form of pressure, such as from the elastic part of socks, can induce the pitting of this edema.
In non-pitting edema, which usually affects the legs or arms, pressure that is applied to the skin does not result in a persistent indentation. Non-pitting edema can occur in certain disorders of the lymphatic system such as lymphedema, which is a disturbance of the lymphatic circulation that may occur after a radical mastectomy, or congenital lymphedema. Another cause of non-pitting edema of the legs is called pretibial myxedema, which is a swelling over the shins that occurs in some patients with hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland). Non-pitting edema of the legs is difficult to treat. Diuretic medications are generally not effective, although elevation of the legs periodically during the day and compressive devices may reduce the swelling.
Causes of edema are:
- high hydrostatic pressure of the veins, leading to poor reabsorption of fluid
- venous obstruction
- congestive heart failure
- varicose veins
- low oncotic pressure
- nephrotic syndrome (renal protein loss)
- inflammation (active secretion of fluid into the interstitial space):
- allergic conditions (e.g. Angioedema)
- any other form of inflammation (tumor - or swelling - is one of the main characteristics of inflammation)
If bloating and swelling are recurring problems for you, consult your physician to see if there is a cause for concern. If not, consider taking the following measures:
- Decrease your salt intake.
- Avoid all canned and processed foods
- Eat foods that are natural diuretics such as cucumbers, parsley, beets, watercress, asparagus, dandelion greens, strawberries, apples and grapes.
- Exercise regularly to improve your circulation.
- Wear support stockings.
- Elevate your feet for 20 minutes during the day and an hour or two before going to bed.
- Avoid extreme stress as it can sometimes activate a water-retaining hormone.
- Drink lots of water. It doesn't add to the bloat, it will make your kidneys work harder.
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