What Is Vascular Disease?
Vascular disease is any condition that affects the network of your blood vessels.
This network is known as your vascular or circulatory system. "Vascular" comes from a Latin word for hollow container. If your entire network of blood vessels were stretched end-to-end, they could circle the Earth multiple times.
Some of these vessels move blood. As your heart beats, it pumps blood with oxygen and nutrients to feed your tissues and carry off waste. Arteries move blood away from the heart. Veins return it.
Lymph vessels and lymph nodes are part of a separate cleaning system that rids your body of damaged cells. They also help protect you from infections and cancer. The vessels pick up fluid from tissues throughout your body. That fluid drains back into veins under your collarbones.
Vascular diseases range from problems with your arteries, veins, and vessels that carry lymph to disorders that affect how your blood flows. A disease can mean your tissues aren’t getting enough blood, a condition called ischemia, as well as other serious, even life-threatening, problems.
Vascular Disease Types
An aneurysm is a bulge in the wall of any blood vessel. It's most often seen in the aorta, the main blood vessel leaving your heart. You can get an aortic aneurysm in your chest, where it's called thoracic, or your belly, where it's called abdominal.
Small aneurysms generally pose no threat. But they put you at risk for other problems:
- Plaque deposits may build up where the aneurysm is.
- A clot may form there and then break off and get stuck somewhere else, which could be very dangerous.
- The aneurysm might get bigger and press on other organs, which causes pain.
Because the artery wall is stretched and thinner at the spot of an aneurysm, it's fragile and could burst under stress, like a balloon. The sudden rupture of an aortic aneurysm can be deadly.
Atherosclerosis and peripheral artery disease
Coronary arteries supply blood to your heart muscle. Peripheral arteries carry blood to other tissues and organs. Both can have deposits of fat, cholesterol, and other substances on their inside walls called plaque. Over time, plaque can build up, so the vessel becomes narrow and it’s harder for blood to flow. Or a plaque could rupture, blocking blood flow.
Eventually, the artery will be so narrow that your tissues don't get enough blood. You can have different symptoms and problems, based on where it happens. For example:
- Blockage in coronary arteries can cause chest pain (angina) or a heart attack.
- If it's in the carotid arteries that supply your brain, it can lead to a stroke or mini stroke, which is called a transient ischemic attack (TIA).
- Blockage in the kidneys can lead to trouble with how they work, uncontrolled high blood pressure, and heart failure.
- A blockage in your leg can lead to leg pain or cramps when you're active -- a condition called claudication -- a skin color change, sores or ulcers, and your legs feeling tired.
When you don't have any blood flow to a part of your body, the tissues could die. If that happens, you may lose a limb or an organ.
Blood clots in veins (VTE)
A blood clot in a vein inside a muscle -- usually in your lower leg, thigh, or pelvis -- is a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). If the clot breaks loose and travels to your lungs, it becomes a pulmonary embolism (PE). Your doctor may call these clots in your veins venous thromboembolisms, or VTE.
- Conditions that slow blood flow or make blood thicker, such as congestive heart failure and certain tumors
- Damaged valves in a vein
- Damaged veins from an injury or infection
- Genetic disorders that make your blood more likely to clot
- Hormones, such as estrogen from pregnancy and birth control pills
- Long bed rest or not being able to move much
- Surgery, especially some operations on your hips and legs
Damaged vein valves or a DVT can cause long-term blood pooling and swelling in your legs, too. That problem is called chronic venous insufficiency. If you don't do anything about it, fluid will leak into the tissues in your ankles and feet. Over time, it may make your skin break down and wear away.
Blood clotting disorders
Some illnesses make your blood more likely to form clots. You could be born with one, or something may happen to you. These types of disorders can cause:
- Higher-than-normal levels of clot-forming substances, including fibrinogen, factor 8, and prothrombin
- Not enough blood-thinning (anticoagulant) proteins, including antithrombin, protein C, and protein S
- Trouble breaking down fibrin, the protein mesh that holds clots together
- Damage to the endothelium, the lining of your blood vessels
This rare disease most often happens in the small and medium arteries and veins in your arms and legs. They swell up and may form clots, cutting off blood supply to your fingers, hands, toes, or feet. These body parts will hurt, even when you're resting. If it's severe, you might lose fingers or toes.
Although we don’t know what causes it, there's a strong tie to tobacco use -- including cigars and chewing tobacco -- and secondhand smoke.
Your lymphatic system doesn't have a pump, the way your blood circulation system does. It relies on valves in the vessels and muscle contractions to keep the lymph moving.
When vessels or nodes are missing or don't work right, fluid can build up and cause swelling, most often in your arms or legs. This is called lymphedema.
Primary lymphedema is rare. It happens when you're born without certain lymph vessels or when you have a problem with the tubes themselves.
When there’s a blockage or pause in your lymphatic system, it’s called secondary lymphedema. It can happen because of:
- Cancer and cancer treatments, including radiation
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
- Scar tissue formation
- Serious injury
Peripheral venous disease and varicose veins
Unlike arteries, veins have flaps inside called valves. When your muscles contract, the valves open, and blood moves through the tubes. When your muscles relax, the valves close so the blood flows in only one direction.
Damaged valves may not close the way they should when your muscles relax. This allows blood to flow in both directions, and it can pool.
This is what happens with varicose veins. They may bulge like purple ropes under your skin. They can also look like small red or purple bursts on your knees, calves, or thighs. These spider veins happen because of swollen small blood vessels called capillaries. After a day of activity, your legs might ache, sting, or swell.
More women than men get varicose veins, and they often run in families. Pregnancy, being very overweight, or standing for long times can cause them.
Because your blood is moving more slowly, it may stick to the sides of your veins, and clots can form.
Raynaud's phenomenon (Raynaud's disease or Raynaud's syndrome)
When you're cold or excited, the small arteries of your fingers and your toes may twitch or cramp. This can temporarily shut down blood supply to the area, making your skin look white or bluish and feel cold or numb.
The working conditions of some jobs bring on Raynaud's. The symptoms could also be related to other diseases, including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma.
People with Buerger’s disease can also have Raynaud’s phenomenon.
Vascular Disease Causes and Risk Factors
Vascular disease causes can include:
- Atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in your arteries
- Blockage in your blood vessel by a mass of debris (embolus) or blood clot (thrombus)
- Inflammation, called vasculitis
- Trauma or injury
Some things can increase your risk of getting a vascular disease, including:
- Family history of vascular disease, heart attack, or stroke
- Gender. (Men are at higher risk than women.)
- High blood pressure
- High levels of fats like cholesterol and triglycerides
- Lack of physical activity
- Being overweight or obese
Vascular Disease Treatment
You can often treat vascular disease with lifestyle changes, such as:
- A healthy diet to help lower your blood sugar or cholesterol
- Quitting tobacco
- Stress management
You may also need medication, including:
- Blood pressure drugs
- Cholesterol medication
- Drugs to prevent blood clots
If your case is serious, you might need a medical procedure like an angioplasty, in which your doctor widens or clears a blood vessel.
Vascular Disease Prevention
If you haven’t been diagnosed with vascular disease, some of those lifestyle changes can help keep you healthy. Eat a good diet, exercise regularly, and don’t smoke.