Vascular Conditions

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are vascular conditions?

Vascular conditions affect the blood vessels and lymphatic system. The blood vessel vascular system consists of arteries, which carry oxygenated blood to the tissues, and veins, which carry blood back to the heart. The lymphatic system consists of the spleen, thymus gland, hundreds of lymph nodes, adenoids, tonsils, and lymph vessels. This system of organs, gland and vessels is part of your immune system and moves lymph fluid around the body.

The term, vascular conditions, includes a wide variety of vascular diseases and vascular disorders. Some of them are more common than others. And some of them are medical emergencies, while others are not.

Examples of vascular conditions include:

  • Aortic aneurysms are weak areas in the aorta, the main artery leaving the heart. It passes up through your chest and down through your belly. An aneurysm in the upper part is a thoracic aortic aneurysm. An aneurysm in the lower part is an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Aneurysms can bulge and balloon outward. Left untreated, an aortic aneurysm can burst and cause life-threatening internal bleeding.

  • Aortic dissection is a tear and separation of the layers of the aorta’s wall. Aortic dissection requires emergency treatment.

  • Carotid artery disease is a narrowing or blockage of the major arteries in the neck. These arteries supply the brain with blood. Often, a stroke is the first sign of this condition. If doctors find it before a stroke happens, they can often prevent it.

  • Limb ischemia is lack of blood flow to an extremity, usually the legs. It can result from peripheral artery disease (PAD). In PAD, atherosclerosis causes a buildup of fatty plaques inside the arteries supplying the legs. The arteries can become blocked, cutting off blood supply. Left untreated, this can result in tissue death and loss of the limb.

  • Lymphedema is a buildup of fluid in the arms or legs due to problems with the lymphatic system.

  • Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder primarily affecting the connective tissue of the heart, blood vessels, eyes and joints. It can lead to aortic aneurysm, heart valve problems, eye problems, spine disorders, and lung diseases.

  • Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) is a condition of the blood vessels outside the heart and brain. It usually affects the legs. Atherosclerosis is the most common cause.

  • Renal artery stenosis is a narrowing of the arteries supplying the kidneys. Atherosclerosis is also the most common cause of this condition. Left untreated, it can lead to kidney failure.

  • Varicose veins are abnormal veins that bulge and look blue or twisted. They occur when valves inside the veins become damaged or weak. The valves are no longer able to help direct blood back to the heart. As a result, blood can pool inside the vein causing it to swell and weaken.

  • Vascular dementia is memory loss and impaired mental ability due to decreased blood flow to the brain. This can result from stroke and other conditions. It can include problems with speaking, thinking and behavior.

  • Vasculitis is inflammation of the blood vessels. It occurs when the immune system mistakenly starts attacking them. Various conditions can trigger this reaction including certain blood cancers, chronic infections, reactions to medications, and autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Lifestyle factors play a role in many vascular conditions especially those caused from atherosclerosis. However, there are other risk factors.

Left untreated, some vascular conditions can lead to serious and life-threatening complications. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms such as severe or sudden chest pain, severe belly pain, difficulty breathing, or a sensation of feeling your heartbeat in your abdomen.

What are the symptoms of vascular conditions?

The symptoms of vascular conditions vary widely depending on the specific problem. Some types do not have any symptoms until something serious occurs. Carotid artery disease is an example. This makes regular medical care extremely important. It offers the best chance of identifying risk factors and catching problems early, before potentially fatal complications occur.

Common symptoms of vascular conditions

The most common symptoms of a vascular condition will depend on the organs and tissues a blood vessel supplies. Examples of symptoms include:

  • Dizziness

  • Memory problems

  • Pain or cramping in the legs

  • Painful, distended veins

  • Persistent swelling in the arms or legs

  • Skin ulcers or wounds that do not heal

  • Weakness, coldness, or skin changes in the legs

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, vascular conditions can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Sensation of feeling your heartbeat in your abdomen

  • Stroke symptoms including sudden weakness of one side of the face or body, difficulty speaking, or confusion

  • Sudden or severe belly pain

  • Sudden or severe chest, back, neck or jaw pain

Time is critical if you are having a stroke or a ruptured aneurysm. Do not hesitate to call 911, even if you are not sure. Minutes can matter in these emergencies.

What causes vascular conditions?

The causes of vascular conditions differ depending on the condition. Atherosclerosis is a common cause for many of them. Fatty deposits build up on the inside of the blood vessels’ walls. These deposits harden into plaques. As plaques continue to build, they narrow the blood vessel. Eventually, this can completely block the vessel and prevent blood from flowing through it. The lymphatic system plays a significant role in clearing lipids (fats in the blood) and averting atherosclerosis. Infection or inflammation from a virus, bacteria or fungi can lead to conditions affecting the lymphatic system.

What are the risk factors for vascular conditions?

Certain factors increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis and vascular conditions. However, not everyone with these risk factors will end up with a vascular problem. What’s more, some people without any obvious risk factors can develop a vascular disorder. These risk factors include:

  • Being older than 45 years

  • Being overweight

  • Eating a diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol

  • Having a family history of a vascular condition

  • Having high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes

  • Leading a sedentary lifestyle

  • Smoking or using smokeless tobacco

Reducing your risk of vascular conditions

You may be able to lower your risk of a vascular condition by changing risk factors that are under your control. This mainly involves changing lifestyle habits that contribute to atherosclerosis.

  • Getting regular physical exercise

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Quitting smoking or tobacco use

  • Taking your medications exactly as prescribed

  • Treating chronic medical conditions according to your doctor’s recommendation

See your doctor regularly to discuss your risk factors and start making changes. Regular medical care will help your doctor find any vascular problems in the early stages before serious complications develop. It will also allow your doctor to address any chronic medical conditions that require treatment.

How are vascular conditions treated?

For vascular conditions, the general treatment goals include correcting any physical problems, improving symptoms, and preventing complications. The approach to reaching these goals will depend on the specific vascular problem. For vascular conditions involving atherosclerosis, lifestyle changes will be important. Depending on your specific condition, your treatment plan may also involve medications and medical procedures or surgery. Examples of surgeries and procedures involving blood vessels include:

  • Aneurysm repair to mend the weakened area in the vessel wall

  • Angioplasty and stenting to open blocked vessels and keep them open

  • Carotid artery surgery including carotid endarterectomy and carotid stenting

  • Peripheral vascular bypass to create a new path for blood to flow around a blocked or narrowed vessel in the arms or legs

It is often possible for doctors to treat some vascular conditions before permanent damage or complications occur. The ability to do this relies heavily on identifying your risk factors and seeking early treatment.

What are the potential complications of vascular conditions?

The potential complications of a vascular condition can be serious, disabling, and even life threatening. The risk and seriousness of the complications depend on the specific condition. Doctors use physical therapy and occupational therapy to help reduce complications from vascular problems. These therapies can also help you recover after a vascular event, such as a stroke. Therapists will work with you to regain strength and stamina, increase energy, improve your overall health, and enhance your quality of life.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 22
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Aortic Aortic Aneurysm. Society for Vascular Surgery. https://vascular.org/patient-resources/vascular-conditions/abdominal-aortic-aneurysm
  2. Aortic Dissection. Society for Vascular Surgery. https://vascular.org/patient-resources/vascular-conditions/aortic-dissection#symptoms
  3. Carotid Artery Disease. Society for Vascular Surgery. https://vascular.org/patient-resources/vascular-conditions/carotid-artery-disease
  4. Lymph System. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002247.htm
  5. Peripheral Arterial Disease. Society of Interventional Radiology. https://www.sirweb.org/patient-center/peripheral-arterial-disease/
  6. Renal Artery Stenosis. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/kidney-disease/renal-artery-stenosis
  7. Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm. Society for Vascular Surgery. https://vascular.org/patient-resources/vascular-conditions/thoracic-aortic-aneurysm
  8. Varicose Veins. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/vv/
  9. Vascular Dementia. Alzheimer’s Association. https://www.alz.org/dementia/vascular-dementia-symptoms.asp
  10. Vascular Diseases and Rehabilitation. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/312052-overview#a1
  11. Vascular Treatments. Society for Vascular Surgery. https://vascular.org/patient-resources/vascular-treatments
  12. Vasculitis. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/vas/causes
  13. What Is Marfan Syndrome? Marfan Foundation. https://www.marfan.org/about/marfan
  14. What Is Vascular Disease? Society for Vascular Surgery. https://vascular.org/patient-resources/what-vascular-disease