Edema causes swelling in the tissue that can hinder wound healing.

Many factors can delay the stages of wound healing. Infection, necrosis, maceration, abnormal bacterial presence and even poor nutrition are common detriments to the growth of new tissue, and one lesser-known culprit is edema. Particularly in excess, this condition can slow or halt the healing process, and can even be the cause of wounds.

What is edema?

Edema is a condition caused by an excessive amount of fluid trapped in the tissue of the body, leading to swelling. The tiny blood vessels – capillaries – in the tissue leak fluid, which then builds up in the surrounding tissue. The swelling is generally uncomfortable and, interestingly, can give the tissue a pliable quality. Pushing your finger into the tissue would leave a temporary indentation before it returns to its original shape. While it may occur anywhere in the body, edema is most often found in the feet, ankles, legs, hands and arms. This condition is generally temporary, though some people may experience edema flare-ups more often than other people.

What causes edema?

According to the Mayo Clinic, common causes are situational – pregnant women often experience edema, as do people taking certain medications. These pharmaceutical drugs are known to cause edema as a side-effect:

  • Estrogen
  • Steroids
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs
  • High blood pressure medicine
  • Thiazolidinediones (diabetes medications)

Edema can also be the effect of sitting for extended periods of time, eating too many high-salt foods and premenstruation. While edema is generally considered no cause for concern, it’s important to discuss your symptoms with a clinician – it can be a sign of an underlying medical condition. Kidney disease and damage, cirrhosis, congestive heart failure and vein damage are just some of the medical issues that can cause edema, and if left undetected and undiagnosed, can be fatal. Additionally, edema may harm the tissue when experienced in excess, and severe edema can significantly hinder wound healing.

How does excess edema affect wound healing?

Untreated and persistent edema can lead to swelling so excessive that pain, stiffness of the skin and even mobility problems can be experienced. It also increases the risk of infection in the affected area, decreases blood circulation and negatively affects elasticity of the arteries – all complications that can impede on wound healing by obstructing the flow of blood throughout the body and to the wound site. According to the journal Advances in Skin & Wound Care, severe edema that causes a wound to be deprived of local blood supply can cause wounds to heal slowly or not at all.

Complicating matters further is the fact that edema increases the risk of developing a skin ulcer. As the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses explains, edema, by causing the compression of small blood vessels, creates dead tissue that can result in a pressure ulcer. The excess moisture build-up can then lead to further maceration, causing breakdown of the epidermal layers, further slowing the body’s ability to recover.

Managing edema

It’s clear that edema can impair the wound healing process. In mild forms, the condition often goes away on its own. Increasing physical activity, massage and compression are well-known home remedies, as they enhance the flow of blood and fluids. Similarly, many people find that raising the affected area above the heart can reduce temporary swelling.

More severe cases may require prescription medication, such as diuretics, to reduce fluid build-up in the body. Talk with a clinician if swelling is persistent and excessive to discuss a treatment plan that won’t impede on wound healing and investigate any potential underlying medical conditions.

Advanced Tissue is the nation’s leader in delivering specialized wound care supplies to patients, delivering to both homes and long-term care facilities.