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Cardiac edema is a buildup of fluid in the interstitial tissues and cavities of the body as a result of congestive heart failure. Symptoms of edema are fatigue or weakness, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath and weight gain caused by fluid retention. These symptoms can be a sign of other conditions, but they still warrant an immediate visit to the doctor when they occur.
The area of the body affected by cardiac edema depends on which area of the heart is affected by heart failure. When the failure occurs in the lower left chamber of the heart, or the left ventricle, blood is not pumped out to the body as fast as it returns to the lungs. Blood then builds up in the blood vessels of the lungs. Sometimes fluid from the blood seeps into the breathing space of the lungs, causing a potentially life-threatening condition known as pulmonary edema.
When failure occurs in the heart’s lower right chamber, the right ventricle, blood is not pumped out to the lungs as fast as it is pumped back to the body through the veins. Blood builds up in the right side of the heart and veins, forcing fluid into the tissues. Cardiac edema in this case is characterized by swelling in the legs, feet and abdomen.
Cardiac edema is a symptom, not a disease, so identifying the cause of the edema is crucial in determining a course of treatment. Seeking immediate medical attention is an important step toward ensuring a positive prognosis. This is especially important when pulmonary edema occurs, because prompt medical care can be the difference between recovery and sudden death.
Various tests are performed to determine the cause and severity of the heart failure causing the edema. A patient might undergo a physical exam, electrocardiogram (EKG) to check heart rhythm, chest X-ray, cardiac catheterization to detect abnormalities in the heart vessels and echocardiography tests to detect abnormalities in the heart valves, coronary arteries and walls of the heart. The patient's medical history also is reviewed.
Treatment for mild or moderate cases of heart failure involve a change in diet, starting an exercise regimen and taking medications such as diuretics, digitalis, vasodilators, beta blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers and calcium channel blockers. Surgery sometimes is required to repair damaged heart valves or walls. Severe or "end-stage" heart failure cannot be treated by medication because the heart muscle is too damaged. The only option is a heart transplant.
The only solution for cardiac edema is prevention of the conditions that cause it. People with high blood pressure or high cholesterol should work closely with their doctor to minimize their risk of heart disease or heart failure. Adapting a lifestyle that incorporates daily exercise, eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy body weight also go a long way toward preventing conditions that cause cardiac edema.