Your body feeds itself – its organs and tissues – through the arteries, veins, and capillaries that make up your vascular system. Also known as your circulatory system, this network delivers blood rich in oxygen and nutrients to every part of your body. Vascular disease is any condition that interrupts the healthy flow of this network.
With vascular disease, blocked or weakened blood vessels impede blood flow. Or, the valves in your veins may become damaged. The most common type of vascular disease is high blood pressure, which affects around 78 million Americans. However, for this post, we’re looking more closely at four other common vascular diseases: peripheral artery disease (PAD), abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA), atherosclerosis, and carotid artery disease (CAD).
What Is Peripheral Artery Disease?
Peripheral artery disease is the result of plaque buildup in the arteries. This thickening of the artery wall reduces or even blocks blood flow to the organ or body part relying on that damaged artery for oxygen and nutrients.
PAD may cause organ damage, including to the brain, raising risk of stroke.
Diabetic Peripheral Arterial Disease (P.A.D.) Interactive Learning Module Video
What Are the Warning Signs of Peripheral Artery Disease?
People often experience no symptoms until the disease is advanced. Most symptoms are caused by a lack of blood flow to the leg muscles. Warning signs include:
- A noticeably cooler temperature in the foot or lower leg compared to your overall body temperature
- Foot wounds that either do not heal or heal slowly
- Painful cramping that does not end once you stop exercising
- Reduced leg hair
- Thin, shiny skin on the legs, or skin that is pale or dusky
What Is Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm?
Abdominal aortic aneurysms occur due to the progressive weakening of the aortic wall. This causes the vessel to balloon and eventually rupture if left untreated. Most people do not know they have an aneurysm until the situation becomes life-threatening.
What Are the Warning Signs of Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm?
AAA typically presents no obvious signs, with the majority of aneurysms being discovered due to diagnostic testing for an unrelated issue. Patients may feel pain in the abdomen, side, or back. They may also feel tingling or coldness in the hands and feet.
What Is Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis occurs as a result of plaque buildup in the arteries. It is the leading cause of death in America, accounting for nearly three-quarters of all cardiovascular-related deaths. The cause is unknown, but it is related to age, although patients with a family history may experience it earlier in life.
What Are the Symptoms of Atherosclerosis?
Some people experience no symptoms. However, when atherosclerosis affects blood flow to a certain organ, you may experience the following:
- If the heart is affected, you may experience chest pain, coronary artery disease, or a heart attack.
- If the brain is affected, you may have a stroke. Or, you may have a “warning” stroke called a transient ischemic attack (TIA).
- If the lower extremities are affected, you may experience pain when walking as well as heightened risk of amputation.
- If the kidneys are affected, you may have kidney disease or high blood pressure.
What Is Carotid Artery Disease?
The carotid arteries carry blood from the heart to the brain. When plaque buildup causes those arteries to narrow or become blocked, that’s carotid artery disease. Diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol all lead to that slow plaque buildup. Risk of stroke is greatly increased.
What Are the Warning Signs of Carotid Artery Disease?
There are few advanced warning signs of CAD. The first symptom for many is a TIA (the warning stroke). Symptoms of a TIA or stroke are similar and include:
- An inability to move arms or legs normally
- Blurred or dimmed vision or loss of vision entirely
- Isolated numbness
- Tingling around the mouth and difficulty speaking
- A sudden, severe headache (rare)
- Seek medical attention immediately if you notice any of these symptoms.
What Factors Raise Your Risk of Vascular Disease?
Your chances of developing vascular disease increase dramatically if you have even one of the following risk factors:
- Are obese or overweight
- Do not exercise or lead an inactive lifestyle
- Have a family history of vascular disease
- Have diabetes
- Have high blood pressure
- Have high cholesterol
- Smoke or use tobacco
- Risk also increases as you age.
How to Reduce Risk or Manage the Symptoms of Vascular Disease
The best way to reduce your risk is to adopt healthy lifestyle changes, starting with quitting smoking. This is probably the biggest risk factor for a variety of diseases. Your doctor can help you begin a smoking cessation program.
Next, adopt a healthier diet, preferably one that is plant-based and includes lean protein and whole grains. Also, cut saturated fats to reduce cholesterol and plaque buildup in your arteries.
Moderate exercise is important to improve circulation and promote blood vessel growth. Finally, if you have high blood pressure, work with your doctor to lower it to the healthy range. Your doctor can also help you develop a healthy diet and exercise program.
Vascular Health and Foot Care
Problems with your circulatory system often lead to foot problems, so taking proper care of your feet is a key feature of vascular health. If you’ve been diagnosed with vascular disease, check your feet daily, including the bottoms. You may need to use a mirror or ask someone else to assist you with this. If you notice an injury (blisters, cracks, sores, etc.) that doesn’t heal within a few days, talk to your doctor.
Bathe your feet with warm water and mild soap and dry them well, including the spaces between your toes. Do not soak your feet. Use fragrance-free lotion, but do not place it between your toes.
Do not walk barefoot, even when at home. Wear comfortable, well-fitting shoes at all times. If sitting for extended periods, cross your legs at the ankles rather than the knees. At least three times each day, spend around five minutes wiggling your toes and rotating your ankles.
Final Diagnosis: Vascular Health
The best way to protect your health or manage your symptoms is through healthy lifestyle changes. Try to engage in moderate exercise at least 30 minutes each day, follow a heart-smart diet, and avoid smoking tobacco.