Edema is a condition that results due to fluid retention in tissues. It can occur due to various underlying reasons. Edema can occur anywhere in your body, but it is most often noticed in the hands, wrists, arms, ankles, legs, and feet. Edema starts slowly in majority of the cases, but it may develop suddenly in severe cases. If edema occurs in limbs, the movement of those areas can be affected. Edema of any part of the body should be given immediate medical attention as it can be due to a serious condition. It is treated by addressing its underlying cause.
Edema can occur due to malnutrition, electrolyte disturbance, infections, tissue death, circulatory issues, and other medical conditions. Mild cases of edema can result from sitting or standing too long in the same position. Eating a diet containing high amounts of salts can also disturb your body’s fluid balance, resulting in edema. Pregnancy and premenstrual syndrome may also cause edema in some cases.
Edema can also be a sign of some serious medical conditions. These include congestive heart failure, cirrhosis, liver disease, kidney disease, nephrotic syndrome, thyroid issues, venous insufficiency, impaired lymphatic system, and protein deficiency. Certain medications may cause edema as a side effect. These medications include NSAIDs, steroids, estrogens, diabetes, and high blood pressure medicines. Burns, severe traumatic injury, or allergic reactions can also cause fluid retention in the affected regions.
Edema is generally divided into two types: pitting and non-pitting edema.
Pitting edema is the more common type. It includes peripheral edema, which affects extremities in many cases. The major factor behind this kind of edema is excessive water retention. The characteristic feature of this type is that when a finger is pressed on the region of edema, it forms a small pit or indentation.
Non-pitting edema is the less common type. It occurs due to underlying medical conditions, including lipedema, lymphedema, or myxedema. A pit or indentation is not formed if a finger is pressed on an edematous region.
Risk factors of edema are associated with its underlying causes. History of a medical condition related to your heart, liver, or kidney can increase the risk of edema. If you have to sit in a particular position for a long time, such as during traveling, you may develop edema in your lower legs. Pregnancy is also linked with edema risk because the mother’s body retains more salt and water for fetus development. Intake of too much salt in the diet or the use of certain medications can also increase the risk of edema. You may also develop localized edema after a surgical procedure. This can occur due to obstruction or removal of lymph nodes.
Edema can occur at any age, but many cases are reported in people over the age of 40 or 50 years. This is attributed to aging, reduced efficiency of organs, and increased use of medications.
If edema occurs in the skin tissues, it presents as swelling of the affected region. The skin over that region may appear stretched and shiny. Pitting and non-pitting edema can be differentiated by pushing a finger on the edematous area and holding it for 5 seconds. If a pit or dimple is formed, it is pitting edema. If the skin bounces back to its stretched state after removing the finger, it is non-pitting edema. Edema can also be associated with pain and discomfort. Edema in the arms or legs can decrease their movement. Edema in the lungs can result in coughing and shortness of breath. Other symptoms can appear depending on the root cause.
History is the first step toward the diagnosis of edema. Your doctor will ask questions about family history, past and present medical conditions, dietary factors, and other reasons that may have caused this condition. This is followed by a physical examination. A differentiation between pitting and non-pitting edema is made. The location of edema can tell a lot about its cause, too. Your doctor will run an array of tests to diagnose the suspected cause. These can include CBC, LFTs, RFTs, urinalysis, electrolyte tests, ultrasound, CT scan, and MRI.
Edema itself is a manifestation of certain lifestyle factors, such as pregnancy, medical conditions, or medications. The original cause should be identified and differentiated on the basis of history, symptoms, physical examination, and diagnostic tests.
Mild edema does not require any special treatment and can be reversed by raising your legs above your heart level. Slow movement of the legs can also facilitate fluid drainage by the contraction of muscles. If edema affects only one arm or leg, your doctor may recommend wearing compression stockings. They can reduce fluid accumulation in the affected region. In moderate-to-severe cases, medical attention is required. In these cases, edema can be reduced by removing excess fluid from the body. This is usually done using medications. A long-term solution is to treat the underlying cause to reduce the risk of edema and further complications.
Diuretics, e.g., furosemide, are the most common drugs used to treat moderate-to-severe edema. These drugs help in the removal of excess fluid from your body. If you are already taking a medication that may have caused edema, it will be stopped until your condition improves.
The prognosis of edema depends on its root cause. Recurrent edema may occur in patients with heart, kidney, or liver diseases. Treatment of the root cause can resolve edema and prevent its recurrence.
Edema can be prevented to a certain extent by improving some lifestyle factors. Reduce salt intake from your diet, especially if you have a cardiovascular condition. Eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly. Avoid sitting or staying in the same position for too long and take little breaks to move around if possible. If you have a medical condition that increases the risk of edema, consult with your doctor and ask for possible options that can help manage the condition. If you feel your legs getting numb, raise them above heart level to improve circulation.
Our clinical experts continually monitor the health and medical content posted on CURA4U, and we update our blogs and articles when new information becomes available. Last reviewed by Dr.Saad Zia on November 14, 2023.