Edema is a common complication of heart failure. It is not typically dangerous in itself, but the location and severity of the swelling can be an indicator of how severe the heart failure is.

Some types of edema, such as pulmonary edema, are a medical emergency. This condition causes fluid to accumulate around the lungs, leading to coughing and shortness of breath.

However, the most typical type of edema people with heart failure experience affects the lower legs, feet, and hands.

This article explores heart failure and edema, including the link between them, whether the edema is serious, the treatment options, and more.

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When a person has heart failure, the heart muscles cannot pump blood as effectively as they should. The heart lacks the necessary force to propel the blood through the arteries and back through the veins, leading to increased pressure in the blood vessels.

This elevation in pressure forces fluid out of the blood vessels and into the surrounding tissues, resulting in swelling, or edema.

There are two main forms of heart failure: systolic and diastolic. Systolic heart failure is the heart’s weakened ability to contract and pump blood adequately.

In contrast, diastolic heart failure occurs when the heart muscles become stiff and have difficulty relaxing between contractions, negatively affecting the heart’s filling capacity.

Either type of heart failure can lead to edema.

Edema that occurs due to heart failure can appear in various parts of the body, but it often develops in the lower extremities, including the legs, ankles, and feet.

Lower limb edema is a hallmark symptom of heart failure. It occurs due to the effects of gravity. Individuals may notice swelling and tightness in these areas, making walking or wearing shoes difficult.

Edema can also affect other body parts, depending on the severity and progression of heart failure. For instance, individuals may experience abdominal swelling, known as ascites. This occurs due to fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity, causing distension and discomfort.

In more advanced cases of heart failure, edema may extend to other areas, such as the lungs. This is known as pulmonary edema. Pulmonary edema can lead to shortness of breath, coughing, and a sensation of drowning. It is a medical emergency.

The most common form of edema in heart failure is not serious in itself. However, edema can indicate that heart failure is advanced or getting worse.

A 2021 review of past studies suggests that increased edema may predict worsening heart failure. As a result, it is an important clinical marker of heart failure progression.

Edema can occur in the later stages of heart failure, but it does not always indicate a person is in the final stage of heart failure.

Doctors use heart failure stages to describe the severity of a person’s symptoms, their functional limitations, and structural heart disease progression. The stages are as follows:

  • Stage A: This includes people who are at risk of heart failure.
  • Stage B: At this stage, structural heart disease develops, but most people still do not experience symptoms.
  • Stage C: People show symptoms of heart failure, including fatigue, breathlessness, and edema. However, edema may not be a prominent feature, or it may be milder and localized.
  • Stage D: In stage D, edema becomes more apparent. At this point, individuals often have significant structural heart disease and display pronounced symptoms, even at rest.

As a result, people can have edema in several stages. However, very obvious or worsening edema is more likely to happen in the later stages.

Treating edema in heart failure involves addressing the underlying cause and the edema. Medical interventions primarily focus on managing heart failure and improving fluid balance in the body. Doctors may recommend additional measures to alleviate the edema directly.

Medications are crucial in managing heart failure and reducing fluid levels in the body. They may include:

In severe cases of heart failure, a person may also need implantable devices, such as a pump or defibrillator, to assist the heart’s function.

Treating edema involves measures to improve circulation and reduce fluid accumulation. These may include:

  • Compression stockings: These apply pressure to the legs, increasing circulation and helping to reduce swelling.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise can help improve circulation and promote blood pumping from the affected leg muscles back to the heart.
  • Elevation: Elevating the legs or any swollen body part above the level of the heart can assist in maintaining sufficient blood flow and reducing edema.

The life expectancy for heart failure varies depending on the specific type of heart failure a person has, among other factors.

Despite advances in heart failure treatments, the outlook of the condition worsens over time, often leading to frequent hospital admissions and premature death.

People with newly diagnosed heart failure have a mortality rate of around 20% at 1 year and 53% at 5 years, according to some research. This rate increases significantly with age.

Edema is a common sign of heart failure. It occurs when the heart cannot pump blood adequately, leading to an increase in pressure inside the blood vessels. This causes fluid to leak into the surrounding tissues.

Edema in heart failure often affects the lower limbs and fingers, but it can also occur around the abdomen. The severity and extent of edema may indicate the progression and severity of heart failure. Treatment may involve medications, compression stockings, and movement to increase circulation.