Vascular disease is a class of diseases that affect your blood vessels, which are the parts of your body that “carry” blood: the arteries and veins of your circulatory system. Vascular diseases are a subgroup of cardiovascular disease. Vascular diseases and disorders that occur in your vast network of blood vessels can cause a range of health problems that can be severe or even fatal.
Types of Vascular Disease
- Peripheral Artery Disease: PAD is the most common type of vascular disease. This disease happens when atheromatous plaques build up in your arteries. The plaque that builds up in the inner layer of your artery walls consists mostly of macrophage cells or debris that contains a mix of lipids (cholesterol and fatty acids), calcium, and varying amounts of fibrous connective tissues. The plaque causes problems in the vessels that supply blood to your arms and legs, causing your arteries to narrow or become blocked and reducing the amount of blood flow to your limbs. Many people with peripheral artery disease don’t experience any symptoms, or they experience mild symptoms. You may experience leg pain while walking, also known as claudication. Claudication includes muscle pain and cramping in your legs and arms that is triggered by activities like walking. The pain will disappear after a few minutes of rest. The location of your claudication pain depends on the location of your clogged or narrowed artery. Calf pain is the most commonly experienced claudication pain, but it can also be felt in your hip or thigh muscles. Other symptoms that may be indicative of peripheral artery disease include leg numbness or weakness, coldness in your lower leg or foot, and sores that appear on your toes, feet, or legs that refuse to heal. You may also experience a change in the color of your legs, slower growing toenails, shiny skin on your legs, or a weak pulse in your legs or feet. Men with peripheral artery disease may experience erectile dysfunction.
- Renal Artery Stenosis: This disease is characterized by the narrowing of your renal arteries. These arteries carry blood to your kidneys from your aorta.
- Buerger’s Disease: This disease is due to your small blood vessels becoming inflamed and swollen. Your blood vessels then become narrow or blocked by blood clots.
- Raynaud’s Disease: This disease is a rare disorder that causes constriction in your peripheral blood vessels (your fingers and toes).
- Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation: This disease is characterized by a widespread activation of clotting in your smaller blood vessels.
- Cerebrovascular Disease: This refers to a group of vascular diseases that affect your brain function.
It can be difficult to diagnose vascular disease since there are a variety of symptoms that you can have. Your family history is important, and you should be prepared to talk with your doctor about vascular disease in your family. You will also undergo a physical exam that will look for a weak or absent pulse, decreased blood pressure in your affected area, whooshing sounds over your arteries that are heard through a stethoscope, and evidence of poor wound healing in the area where your blood flow is restricted. The type of physical exam you will go through will be different depending on the type of vascular disease you are suspected of having. Most often the physical exam will include checking the blood flow in your legs.
Ankle-Brachial Index is sometimes used. This test compares the blood pressure in your ankle with the blood pressure in your arm. Your doctor will use a regular blood pressure cuff to get a blood pressure reading. To compare and evaluate blood pressure and flow, your doctor will use a special ultrasound device. You may be required to walk on a treadmill and have readings taken before and immediately after exercise. This helps measure the severity of your narrowed arteries during walking.
Special ultrasound techniques help your doctor diagnose your vascular conditions with digital imaging. A Doppler ultrasound assists your doctor in identifying the arteries that are blocked or narrowed. It also helps your doctor evaluate your level blood flow through your vessels. Angiography is a procedure involves the injection of dye into your blood vessels. This dye works as a contrast material, allowing your doctor to view your blood flowing through your arteries as it is happening. X-Ray imaging or procedures like a Magnetic Resonance Angiography (MRA) can help your doctor trace the flow of the contrast material. Samples of your blood can be analyzed. Your doctor will measure your cholesterol, triglycerides, and check you for diabetes.
Factors that increase your risk of developing vascular disease are:
- Obesity (BMI over 30)
- High Blood Pressure
- High Cholesterol
- Increasing Age (especially over 50)
- Family History of Vascular Disease
Remember: you can prevent vascular disease if you take care of yourself, even if you have a heavy family history of vascular problems. Talk with your doctor about how best to prevent vascular disease early on.
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