What is Involved in Making a Diagnosis of Edema?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2019
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A diagnosis of edema is delivered on the basis of physical observation and examination of the patient. Additional diagnostic testing may be required to find out why a patient is experiencing edema and to develop a treatment plan. People at risk for edema as a result of underlying medical conditions or medications they are taking may be warned about the early signs so they can see a doctor as soon as edema starts to develop, making the condition easier to treat.

Edema is a buildup of fluid in the extremities, particularly the legs. For a diagnosis of edema, simply looking at the patient will allow a doctor to see the tell-tale swelling associated with the condition. A doctor familiar with a patient can see a change in size, and if a doctor has not seen a patient before, tell-tale signs like marks left by clothing and puffiness show that the patient's body has increased in size rapidly. In addition, the doctor will be able to feel the swelling on palpation, and it will feel different from swelling associated with inflammation or weight gain.


Palpation during the process of diagnosing edema will also reveal whether it is pitting or nonpitting edema. In pitting edema, an impression left with a finger or mark will take several minutes to snap back into place, in marked contrast with the usual elasticity of the skin. Nonpitting edema does not have this characteristic. Depending on the type of edema a patient has, the causes may be different, and the approach to treatment after a diagnosis of edema can vary.

In a patient with a known cause of edema, like a history of diabetes, a doctor may be able to determine the cause with a patient interview. If no known cause or risk factor is identified during a diagnosis of edema, the doctor may ask for diagnostic tests to evaluate kidney health, hormone levels, and other medical issues. This information will be used to learn more about what is happening inside the patient's body, and to formulate an explanation for the development of edema so the patient can be treated more effectively. Some cases are idiopathic, with no known cause.

After a diagnosis of edema, a patient may be advised to make dietary changes, wear compression stockings, and take other steps to help move the deposits of fluid out of the extremities so the body can eliminate them. It is important to be careful with massage and exercise while people are experiencing edema, as it is possible to make the swelling worse. People with conditions that predispose them to the risk of edema or people on drugs like chemotherapy medications should make sure massage therapists are aware so they can take steps to avoid causing or exacerbating edema.


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