Edema occurs when capillaries, the smallest blood vessels in the body, leak fluid into the surrounding tissues and cause them to swell. However, the underlying problem can be any of a number of different conditions, which is why it’s so important to get an accurate diagnosis to inform treatment.
At Northwest Houston Heart Center, cardiologists Dr. Adnan Aslam and Dr. Roy Norman diagnose and treat edema at their offices in Tomball, Cypress, Magnolia, and The Woodlands, Texas. Often a circulatory system disorder serves as the trigger for edema, which makes it that much more important to seek medical help. Here’s what you need to know.
Mild causes of edema
Edema can be caused by a number of easily correctable minor problems, such as sitting too long in one position, consuming too much salt, and being premenstrual or pregnant.
Edema can also be a side effect of certain medications, such as:
- High blood pressure medicines
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Estrogen (hormone replacement therapy)
- Some diabetes medicines
- Nerve pain medications
Switching medication to one that doesn’t produce edema can solve the problem nicely.
More serious causes of edema
Problems with either the arterial or venous sides of the circulatory system can also lead to edema and are much more serious.
Congestive heart failure
In congestive heart failure, one or both of the heart's lower chambers cannot pump blood well, failing to deliver enough oxygen and nutrients to the body’s tissues. Because of the weak flow, blood can back up in the legs, ankles, and feet, causing edema.
With congestive heart failure, you may also experience swelling in the stomach area and fluid build-up in the lungs, known as pulmonary edema.
The venous side of your circulatory system may also be the culprit. Normally, the veins pump deoxygenated blood back to the heart from the extremities. The problem is they have to pump it against the pull of gravity. To accomplish this, they contain a series of small, one-way valves that close tightly after the blood passes by so the blood won’t backtrack.
However, the valves can be damaged, often by hypertension (high blood pressure), and then they can’t close completely. Blood is, therefore free to flow backward, its movement becomes sluggish, and it pools around the damaged valve, engorging the vein at that site. This state is known as venous insufficiency, as blood flow is insufficient to support the body’s needs.
If the blood pools in superficial veins, those close to the skin's surface, they appear as colored, ropy protrusions on the thighs and calves called varicose veins. Varicose veins are leaky, oozing blood and fluid into the nearby tissues and leading to edema.
Varicose veins can also lead to deep vein thrombosis (DVT), in which a clot develops in one of the deep leg veins. The clot may completely block blood flow, or it can break away and travel to the lungs, causing a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. If you experience sudden swelling in one leg with pain in the calf muscle, you probably have DVT and need immediate medical help.
If you notice swelling in your legs, especially if it’s just one leg, you may have a circulatory system problem that needs to be addressed. Northwest Houston Heart Center can help. To get started, call us at any of our locations or book online today. You can also text us at 832-402-9518.