Edema

  • Medical Author:
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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What causes pitting edema?

Edema is caused by either systemic diseases, that is, diseases that affect the various organ systems of the body, or by local conditions involving just the affected extremities. The most common systemic diseases associated with edema involve the heart, liver, and kidneys. In these diseases, edema occurs primarily because of the body's retention of too much salt (sodium chloride). The excess salt causes the body to retain water, which then leaks into the interstitial tissue spaces, where it appears as edema.

The most common local conditions that cause edema are varicose veins and thrombophlebitis (inflammation of the veins) of the deep veins of the legs. These conditions can cause inadequate pumping of the blood by the veins (venous insufficiency). The resulting increased back-pressure in the veins forces fluid stay in the extremities (especially the ankles and feet). The excess fluid then leaks into the interstitial tissue spaces, causing edema.

Does salt intake affect edema?

The body's balance of salt is usually well-regulated. Most people can consume salt in the diet without concern for developing salt depletion or retention. The intake of salt is determined by dietary patterns and the removal of salt from the body is accomplished by the kidneys. The kidneys have a great capacity to control the amount of salt in the body by changing the amount of salt eliminated (excreted) in the urine. The amount of salt excreted by the kidneys is regulated by hormonal and physical factors that signal whether retention or removal of salt by the kidneys is necessary.

If blood flow to the kidneys is decreased by an underlying condition such as heart failure, the kidneys react by retaining salt. This salt retention occurs because the kidneys perceive the body needs more fluid to compensate for the decreased blood flow. If the patient has a kidney disease that impairs the function of the kidneys, the ability to excrete salt in the urine is limited. In both conditions, the amount of salt in the body increases, which causes the patient to retain water and develop edema.

Patients experiencing a disturbance in their ability to normally excrete salt may need to either be placed on a diet limited in salt and/or given diuretic medications (water pills). In the past, patients with diseases associated with edema were placed on diets very restricted in salt intake. With the development of new and very potent diuretics, this marked restriction in dietary salt intake is generally no longer necessary. These diuretics work by blocking the reabsorption and retention of salt by the kidneys, thereby increasing the amount of salt and water eliminated in the urine.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/15/2016
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