What is Chronic edema?
Chronic edema is swelling that results when, over time, fluid seeps from small blood vessels (capillaries) into body tissues. Normally, fluid passes from the capillaries into the tissues, then back through the vessel walls into the circulation. Nutrients and oxygen in the blood remain in the cells, and waste products are removed. Edema results when fluid does not return in normal amounts from the cells to the bloodstream to continue its flow back to the heart. This may happen at any point in the blood’s circulation, although edema is most common in the lower legs, ankles, and feet. A person may notice swelling, or the collection of fluid may not be obvious. Weight gain may be a symptom.
Several conditions can cause edema. One is heart failure, in which a weakened heart does not pump blood effectively. It is less able to push fluid through the body, and as a result fluid backs up. The pressure that builds up in the blood vessel forces fluid into the tissues and does not permit it to easily pass out through the capillary walls. A clot or tumor in a blood vessel may also cause this buildup of pressure.
Kidney (renal) failure can also cause edema. The kidneys normally play an active role in the flow of fluid between tissues and capillaries. One function of the kidneys is to pass excess salt from the body in the urine. In kidney failure, salt collects in body tissues and attracts fluid (water).
Among the other conditions that can cause chronic edema are poor nutrition and liver disease, in which an abnormal loss of protein disrupts the flow of fluid from the body’s tissues. (Swelling that occurs during the menstrual cycle or following an injury is not chronic edema.)
It may be helpful for a woman to limit fluid and salt intake, exercise by walking in place, avoid standing for long periods, and elevate her legs when sitting. Thigh-high elastic stockings may also relieve swelling. Check with your doctor to ensure the safety of any of these acts.
Published: Jul/Aug 2001
Women's Health Monitor