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About one-third of total-body water is confined to the extracellular space. Approximately 75% of the latter is interstitial fluid, and the remainder is the plasma. The forces that regulate the disposition of fluid between these two components of the extracellular compartment frequently are referred to as the Starling forces. The hydrostatic pressure within the capillaries and the colloid oncotic pressure in the interstitial fluid tend to promote movement of fluid from the vascular to the extravascular space. By contrast, the colloid oncotic pressure contributed by plasma proteins and the hydrostatic pressure within the interstitial fluid promote the movement of fluid into the vascular compartment. As a consequence, there is movement of water and diffusible solutes from the vascular space at the arteriolar end of the capillaries. Fluid is returned from the interstitial space into the vascular system at the venous end of the capillaries and by way of the lymphatics. These movements are usually balanced so that there is a steady state in the sizes of the intravascular and interstitial compartments, yet a large exchange between them occurs. However, if either the capillary hydrostatic pressure is increased and/or the oncotic pressure is reduced, a further net movement of fluid from intravascular to the interstitial spaces will take place.

Edema is defined as a clinically apparent increase in the interstitial fluid volume, which develops when Starling forces are altered so that there is increased flow of fluid from the vascular system into the interstitium. Edema due to an increase in capillary pressure may result from an elevation of venous pressure caused by obstruction to venous and/or lymphatic drainage. An increase in capillary pressure may be generalized, as occurs in heart failure, or it may be localized to one extremity when venous pressure is elevated due to unilateral thrombophlebitis (see below). The Starling forces also may be imbalanced when the colloid oncotic pressure of the plasma is reduced owing to any factor that may induce hypoalbuminemia, as when large quantities of protein are lost in the urine such as in the nephrotic syndrome (see below), or when synthesis is reduced in a severe catabolic state.


Edema may also result from damage to the capillary endothelium, which increases its permeability and permits the transfer of proteins into the interstitial compartment. Injury to the capillary wall can result from drugs (see below), viral or bacterial agents, and thermal or mechanical trauma. Increased capillary permeability also may be a consequence of a hypersensitivity reaction and of immune injury. Damage to the capillary endothelium is presumably responsible for inflammatory edema, which is usually nonpitting, localized, and accompanied by other signs of inflammation—i.e., erythema, heat, and tenderness.


In many forms of edema, despite the increase in extracellular fluid volume, the effective arterial blood volume, a parameter that ...

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