Introduction And Cause
Vascular disease affects the blood vessels of the body. It is caused primarily by atherosclerosis, a degenerative process during which the diameter of the artery or blood vessel becomes narrower as a result of the build up of plaque on its walls – leading to a reduction in the flow of blood through the vessel. Since all organs and tissue depend upon an adequate blood supply for their oxygen and nutrients, atherosclerosis is a major problem for healthy circulation. A principal risk factor for atherosclerotic vascular disease is a high cholesterol level in the bloodstream. Indicators include: low HDL (good cholesterol), raised LDL (bad cholesterol) and a high level of tryglycerides, a related lipid.
Symptoms Of Vascular Disease
These vary according to where the vascular disease develops. In most patients, it most commonly affects the arteries of the heart, brain and legs.
Cardiovascular Disease (Heart)
A mild degree of atherosclerosis typically does not cause any symptoms. But if the heart becomes affected by a reduced blood supply, patients may experience a crushing chest pain (triggered by over-exertion) called angina pectoris, extreme fatigue or breathing difficulties. In extreme cases, a coronary artery may become blocked by a blood clot (thrombosis) causing severe pain and heart attack (myocardial infarction).
Patients who have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, (family history, raised cholesterol, high blood pressure etc.) should beware of heavy or very tight chest pain, which may also radiate towards the throat or left arm. Any such pain which does not settle within about 20 minutes, should be assessed urgently by a paramedic or physician.
Cerebrovascular Disease (Brain)
Atherosclerosis in the arteries of the brain can lead to strokes (cerebrovascular accident or CVA) or a transient ischemic attack (mini-stroke) resulting in paralysis, speech difficulties, problems swallowing, visual and/or sensory disturbances.
Peripheral Vascular Disease (Legs)
If an artery to a lower limb suffers atherosclerotic narrowing, it may cause cramping pain in the muscles when worked (intermittent claudication). If it becomes blocked it requires immediate medical attention to prevent gangrene and amputation. Note that in the initial stages of the condition, the pain is normally experienced in the calves after walking or other form of exertion. This usually disappears after 5 to 10 minutes rest. However, patients who experience constant pain at rest should seek immediate medical attention.
Who Develops Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerotic arterial disease commonly appears in a person’s 20s and increases with advancing age. Men develop the disease earlier than women who benefit from the protective effect of estrogen, until menopause. One group of people who are most at risk are those who suffer from inherited high cholesterol (familial hypercholesterolemia). Otherwise, the main risk factors for atherosclerotic disease include:
- Family history of atherosclerosis
- Family history of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- High cholesterol levels in the blood
- Diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2)
- Obesity (BMI > 30)
The Danger Of Untreated Vascular Disease
Vascular disease is a primary symptom of atherosclerosis that has developed over many years. If it remains untreated, it will result in significant disability and premature death. Note that heart attacks and strokes are among the most common causes of premature death in the West. However, early medical treatment can, in many cases, prevent vascular disease progressing further, while aggressive action to reduce the above risk factors may even result in regression of the condition.