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Oedema (British English) or edema (American English) (play /ɪˈdimə/; from the Greek οἴδημα - oídēma, "swelling"[1]), formerly known as dropsy or hydropsy, is an abnormal accumulation of fluid beneath the skin or in one or more cavities of the body that produces swelling. Generally, the amount of interstitial fluid is determined by the balance of fluid homeostasis, and increased secretion of fluid into the interstitium or impaired removal of this fluid may cause edema.


Cutaneous oedema is referred to as "pitting" when, after pressure is applied to a small area, the indentation persists for some time after the release of the pressure. Peripheral pitting oedema, as shown in the illustration, is the more common type, resulting from water retention. It can be caused by systemic diseases, pregnancy in some women, either directly or as a result of heart failure, or local conditions such as varicose veins, thrombophlebitis, insect bites, and dermatitis.

Non-pitting oedema is observed when the indentation does not persist. It is associated with such conditions as lymphedema, lipoedema and myxedema.

Oedema caused by malnutrition defines kwashiorkor.


A rise in hydrostatic pressure occurs in cardiac failure. A fall in osmotic pressure occurs in nephrotic syndrome and liver failure. It is commonly thought that these facts explain the occurrence of oedema in these conditions. However, it has been known since the 1950s that the situation is more complex and it is still far from completely understood.[2]

Causes of oedema which are generalized to the whole body can cause edema in multiple organs and peripherally. For example, severe heart failure can cause pulmonary edema, pleural effusions, ascites and peripheral edema.

Although a low plasma oncotic pressure is widely cited for the oedema of nephrotic syndrome, most physicians note that the oedema may occur before there is any significant protein in the urine (proteinuria) or fall in plasma protein level. Fortunately there is another explanation available. Most forms of nephrotic syndrome are due to biochemical and structural changes in the basement membrane of capillaries in the kidney glomeruli, and these changes occur, if to a lesser degree, in the vessels of most other tissues of the body. Thus the resulting increase in permeability that leads to protein in the urine can explain the oedema if all other vessels are more permeable as well.

As well as the previously mentioned conditions, oedemas often occur during the late stages of pregnancy in some women. This is more common with those of a history of pulmonary problems or poor circulation also being intensified if arthritis is already present in that particular woman. Women that already have arthritic problems most often have to seek medical help for pain caused from over-reactive swelling. Oedemas that occur during pregnancy are usually found in the lower part of the leg, usually from the calf down.


An oedema will occur in specific organs as part of inflammations, tendinitis or pancreatitis, for instance. Certain organs develop edema through tissue specific mechanisms.

Examples of oedema in specific organs:

  • Cerebral oedema is extracellular fluid accumulation in the brain. It can occur in toxic or abnormal metabolic states and conditions such as systemic lupus or reduced oxygen at high altitudes. It causes drowsiness or loss of consciousness.
  • Pulmonary oedema occurs when the pressure in blood vessels in the lung is raised because of obstruction to remove blood via the pulmonary veins. This is usually due to failure of the left ventricle of the heart. It can also occur in altitude sickness or on inhalation of toxic chemicals. Pulmonary edema produces shortness of breath. Pleural effusions may occur when fluid also accumulates in the pleural cavity.
  • Oedema may also be found in the cornea of the eye with glaucoma, severe conjunctivitis or keratitis or after surgery. It may produce coloured haloes around bright lights.
  • Oedema surrounding the eyes is called periorbital oedema or eye puffiness. The periorbital tissues are most noticeably swollen immediately after waking, perhaps as a result of the gravitational redistribution of fluid in the horizontal position.
  • Another cutaneous form of oedema is myxedema, which is caused by increased deposition of connective tissue. In myxedema (and a variety of other rarer conditions) oedema is caused by an increased tendency of the tissue to hold water within its extracellular space. In myxedema this is because of an increase in hydrophilic carbohydrate-rich molecules (perhaps mostly hyaluronan) deposited in the tissue matrix. Oedema forms more easily in dependent areas in the elderly (sitting in chairs at home or on aeroplanes) and this is not well understood. Estrogens alter body weight in part through changes in tissue water content. There may be a variety of poorly understood situations in which transfer of water from tissue matrix to lymphatics is impaired because of changes in the hydrophilicity of the tissue or failure of the 'wicking' function of terminal lymphatic capillaries.
  • In lymphedema abnormal removal of interstitial fluid is caused by failure of the lymphatic system. This may be due to obstruction from, for example, pressure from a cancer or enlarged lymph nodes, destruction of lymph vessels by radiotherapy, or infiltration of the lymphatics by infection (such as elephantiasis). It is most commonly due to a failure of the pumping action of muscles due to immobility, most strikingly in conditions such as multiple sclerosis, or paraplegia. Lymphatic return of fluid is also dependent on a pumping action of structures known as lymph hearts. It has been suggested that the oedema that occurs in some people following use of aspirin-like cyclo-oxygenase inhibitors such as ibuprofen or indomethacin may be due to inhibition of lymph heart action.
  • Hydrops fetalis is a condition of the fetus characterized by an accumulation of fluid, or oedema, in at least two fetal compartments.


Six factors can contribute to the formation of oedema:

  1. increased hydrostatic pressure;
  2. reduced oncotic pressure within blood vessels;
  3. increased tissue oncotic pressure;
  4. increased blood vessel wall permeability e.g. inflammation;
  5. obstruction of fluid clearance via the lymphatic system;
  6. changes in the water retaining properties of the tissues themselves. Raised hydrostatic pressure often reflects retention of water and sodium by the kidney.[4]

Generation of interstitial fluid is regulated by the forces of the Starling equation.[5] Hydrostatic pressure within blood vessels tends to cause water to filter out into the tissue. This leads to a difference in protein concentration between blood plasma and tissue. As a result the oncotic pressure of the higher level of protein in the plasma tends to suck water back into the blood vessels from the tissue. Starling's equation states that the rate of leakage of fluid is determined by the difference between the two forces and also by the permeability of the vessel wall to water, which determines the rate of flow for a given force imbalance. Most water leakage occurs in capillaries or post capillary venules, which have a semi-permeable membrane wall that allows water to pass more freely than protein. (The protein is said to be reflected and the efficiency of reflection is given by a reflection constant of up to 1.) If the gaps between the cells of the vessel wall open up then permeability to water is increased first, but as the gaps increase in size permeability to protein also increases with a fall in reflection coefficient.

Changes in the variables in Starling's equation can contribute to the formation of oedemas either by an increase in hydrostatic pressure within the blood vessel, a decrease in the oncotic pressure within the blood vessel or an increase in vessel wall permeability. The latter has two effects. It allows water to flow more freely and it reduces the oncotic pressure difference by allowing protein to leave the vessel more easily.

In plants

Oedema in plants is the extended swelling in plant organs caused primarily by an excessive accumulation of water, a condition most damaging in Cacti, Fuchsias, Pelargonium and Succulents. The excess absortion of water can cause cells to rupture, partly due to the cell walls being composed of flexible cellulose.

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  1. οἴδημα, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  2. Renkin EM. (1994) Cellular aspects of transvascular exchange: a 40-year perspective. Microcirculation 1(3):157–67.
  3. C.Michael Hogan (2008) "Western poison-oak: Toxicodendron diversilobum", GlobalTwitcher, ed. Nicklas Strömberg
  4. Kumar, Abbas, Fausto (1999). Pathologic Basis of Disease, 7th edition. China: Elsevier Saunders. pp. 122. ISBN 0-7216-0187-1. 
  5. Walter F., PhD. Boron. Medical Physiology: A Cellular And Molecular Approaoch, Elsevier/Saunders. ISBN 1-4160-2328-3.

Template:Skin and subcutaneous tissue symptoms and signs Template:Hemodynamics

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