The vascular system is the system of blood vessels that transport blood throughout the body. Vascular diseases affect the vascular system and can interfere with blood flow to or from the body’s organs.
Arteries are the blood vessels that carry blood to the rest of the body, while veins return the blood to the heart.
Vascular diseases can lead to serious cardiovascular complications, such as blood clots, heart attack, and stroke. It is important that people learn to recognize the symptoms of vascular disease so they can seek timely and effective treatment.
This article outlines the general risk factors for vascular disease and lists some of the more common conditions along with their associated symptoms and treatments. We also cover the risks and long-term impact of vascular disease and provide information on when to contact a doctor.
Anyone can develop vascular disease, though some people are at increased risk compared to others.
General risk factors for vascular diseases include:
- being over 60 years of age
- being overweight or obese
- having a sedentary lifestyle
- eating a diet high in trans fats or saturated fats
- taking hormonal birth control
- having a family history of vascular disease
- having one or more of the following conditions:
Numerous conditions can affect the vascular system, including:
1. Peripheral vascular disease
Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) refers to diseases of the blood vessels outside the heart and brain.
In PVD, a fatty deposit called plaque accumulates on the inner walls of blood vessels, causing the vessels to narrow. This narrowing impairs blood flow through the vessels.
People with PVD may experience the following symptoms in areas where blood vessels have narrowed:
Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and getting more exercise can help prevent PVD or PAD from worsening.
A doctor may also recommend the following treatments:
- medications, such as:
- surgery to widen narrowed blood vessels or bypass blocked arteries
Doctors will often use a medication called cilostazol to help alleviate exercise-induced leg pain. This drug has FDA approval for this use.
2. Limb-threatening ischemia
Limb-threatening ischemia (LTI) is an advanced stage of PAD that involves a decrease in blood flow to the limbs.
Over time, decreased blood flow to the affected limbs can cause nerve damage, leg ulcers, and infections.
Early symptoms of LTI may include pain, burning, or cramping in the affected limb. Over time, a reduction in blood flow to the affected limb may cause severe pain, even while the limb is resting.
Sudden onset of LTI is a medical emergency. Signs to look out for include:
- severe pain in the affected limb
- paleness or coldness of the affected limb
- numbness or weakness of the affected limb
Regular physical exercise may help prevent LTI from worsening. Other treatment options include:
- medications to help control high blood pressure or high cholesterol
- antibiotics to help treat infections
- surgery to widen narrowed arteries or bypass damaged blood vessels
3. Carotid artery disease
Carotid artery disease is the medical term for an accumulation of plaque in the carotid arteries, which are large arteries on either side of the neck. The carotid arteries deliver blood to the brain and head.
In many cases, people will be unaware that they have carotid artery disease until they experience a stroke or mini-stroke. This can happen when the carotid arteries become so blocked that either part of this blockage breaks loose and travels to the brain or, less commonly, when they completely cut off blood flow.
The symptoms of a mini-stroke or transient ischemic attack are similar to those of a stroke but do not last as long.
Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and eating a healthier diet may help manage carotid artery disease and prevent the condition from worsening.
Some people may require additional treatment, such as:
- medications to:
- prevent blood clots from forming
- lower blood cholesterol levels
- control high blood pressure
- prevent or reduce inflammation
- procedures to widen or unblock the carotid arteries
If a person has diabetes, maintaining strict control of this condition is also helpful in managing carotid artery disease.
4. Abdominal aortic aneurysm
An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is a bulge in the aorta of the abdomen. The aorta is the main artery that carries blood away from the heart to other parts of the body.
An AAA usually happens when the walls of the aorta weaken with age. The aneurysm itself is not harmful and may not cause symptoms. However, if the aneurysm ruptures, it can cause severe internal bleeding that is almost always fatal.
An AAA typically only causes symptoms if it ruptures. A rupture is a medical emergency. Signs to look out for include:
A doctor can usually diagnose an AAA using an ultrasound scan. Surgical treatment may be necessary to correct the aneurysm before it ruptures.
If the aneurysm ruptures, a person will require blood transfusions and emergency surgery to attempt to stop the bleeding.
5. Chronic venous insufficiency
Healthy veins have valves that counteract the effects of gravity to prevent blood from pooling in the lower portions of the veins. Damage to these valves can cause the blood to pool in the lower part of the body, including the legs and feet. The medical term for this is chronic venous insufficiency (CVI).
People with CVI may notice swelling in their legs and feet.
CVI that is not well managed can cause serious complications, including:
- infections and ulcers
- inflammation in the veins
- blood clots
Without treatment, CVI can worsen. Treatment options include:
- wearing compression stockings to improve blood flow
- engaging in more physical activity to help prevent additional damage
- undergoing surgery to remove or collapse damaged portions of veins
6. Varicose veins
Varicose veins are swollen and enlarged veins. They are most common in the legs but can also affect other areas of the body.
Varicose veins are a potential complication of CVI. They develop when valves inside the veins weaken, causing blood to pool and expand inside the veins.
Varicose veins that develop close to the surface of the skin may be visible and can appear twisted and enlarged. They may be painful in some cases but not in others.
Varicose veins are most common in the legs but they can also affect other areas of the body. A hemorrhoid is a type of varicose vein.
Certain lifestyle changes may help to alleviate pain, discomfort, and swelling caused by varicose veins. Examples include:
- avoiding standing for long periods
- elevating the affected area when resting
- wearing compression stockings to improve blood flow
Some people may opt for surgical procedures to remove varicose veins that they find painful or for cosmetic reasons.
7. Deep vein thrombosis
A deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot within a deep vein, usually within the leg. Blood clots can occur elsewhere in the body, but the legs are the most common location.
Additional risk factors
Anyone can develop a blood clot, and some people may be more vulnerable due to genetic or medical conditions. However, certain factors greatly increase the risk of blood clots and DVTs, including:
- sitting for long periods, such as on a long car ride or international flight
- using hormonal birth control pills, especially if a person has other risk factors
- excess weight on the legs from being overweight or pregnant
- recent injury or surgery to the leg
A DVT may cause the following symptoms:
- throbbing or cramping pain, typically in one leg
- swelling, warmth, and redness in the affected leg
- swollen veins that feel hard or sore to the touch
If a fragment of the blood clot breaks loose, it can travel to another part of the body. A blood clot that travels to the lungs is called a pulmonary embolism.
Possible treatment options for DVT include:
- anticoagulant medications to help stop the existing clot from growing and prevent new clots from forming
- clot-busting medications to help dissolve the blood clot
- surgical procedures to help dissolve, break up, or physically remove the blood clot
8. Pulmonary embolism
A pulmonary embolism (PE) is when a blood clot, or a fragment of a blood clot, travels to blood vessels within the lungs.
Symptoms of a PE may include:
- sudden shortness of breath
- chest pain, especially when breathing
- coughing, or coughing up blood
- irregular heartbeat
- dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
Additional risk factors
The additional risk factors for a PE are the same as those for a DVT.
Immediate medical treatment for a PE focuses on ensuring a person can breathe, then dissolving the clot that caused the embolism. Treatment options include:
- clot-busting medications
- anticoagulant medications
- a vena cava filter, which is a filter that sits inside the vena cava vein to help prevent blood clots from traveling to the lungs
- pulmonary embolectomy, a surgery to help remove a PE
- pulmonary thrombectomy, a procedure that uses a catheter to deliver medications at the site of the PE to help break up, dissolve, or remove the clot
Over time, vascular disease can affect the body’s ability to circulate blood to the body’s organs and tissues and return blood to the heart. This can damage multiple organs and organ systems.
The main risks of vascular disease
- heart attack
- pulmonary embolism
People with vascular disease may not experience any symptoms, especially if the condition is in its early stages.
People who experience symptoms of vascular disease should contact a doctor for a diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Some signs and symptoms to look for include:
- unexplained leg pain
- swelling in the feet or legs that comes and goes, or that does not get better with time
- varicose veins
- high blood pressure
- sudden weakness or numbness only affecting one side of the body
- slurring of speech
- sudden blindness in one eye
- foot sores that will not heal
Vascular diseases are diseases that affect the blood vessels and impair blood flow. They can increase the risk of cardiovascular complications, such as heart attack and stroke.
Some general risk factors for vascular disease include smoking, being overweight or obese, and living a sedentary lifestyle. People can reduce their risk of vascular disease by avoiding or quitting smoking, engaging in regular physical activity, and eating a nourishing diet low in trans fats and saturated fats.
There are many types of vascular disease, and each has its own associated symptoms and treatment options. In most cases, early intervention helps reduce the risk of serious and potentially life threatening complications. As such, anyone who experiences symptoms of vascular disease should consult a doctor for a diagnosis and appropriate treatment.