The vascular system, also known as the circulatory system, is made up of all the vessels that carry blood through the body to deliver nutrients and oxygen to tissues while removing and filtering waste. This includes:
- Arteries that distribute oxygenated blood from the heart to the body’s tissues
- Capillaries, which are the tiny blood vessels that connect arteries and veins
- Veins, which are the larger blood vessels that return blood from your extremities back to your heart
The vascular system works like one big pumping system. The heart pumps the blood and the vascular system distributes it and brings it back in a circular action that keeps the body healthy and functioning well. The vascular system is connected to many other parts of the body from your lungs and stomach to the kidneys and urinary system, all of which rely on steady blood supply to remain healthy.
When the vascular system fails, you develop a serious condition known as vascular disease.
Vascular disease is a group of illnesses that can affect your vascular system, or the network of blood vessels in the body. The types of vascular disease include:
- Aneurysm, or a bulge in the wall of a blood vessel
- Atherosclerosis, when the arteries narrow or harden so that the blood flow becomes blocked
- Carotid artery disease, when fatty deposits cause the arteries to become blocked
- Cerebrovascular disease, which affects the blood flow to the brain
- Collagen vascular disease, which includes several autoimmune disorders, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or a blood clot inside a muscle
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD), when the arteries narrow and block blood flow to your arms and legs
- Pulmonary embolism, when one of the big arteries in your lungs becomes blocked
These health issues are very serious and can lead to other types of life-threatening conditions such as:
- Heart attack or heart failure
- High blood pressure
- Kidney failure
- Limb amputation
Typically, atherosclerosis, or the buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries, is a primary cause of vascular disease. We don’t know the exact cause of atherosclerosis, but we do understand that some lifestyle changes can help the arteries stay healthier.
You could also experience a thrombus (blood clot) or an embolus (a debris mass that blocks a blood vessel). Inflammation of the blood vessels, or vasculitis, can block blood vessels. Injury or trauma to the body can lead to infection or damage of these delicate structures. Genetics can also play a factor in developing vascular disease.
The vascular system is an intricate set of structures. If you stretched out all of the arteries, capillaries, and veins in the system it would reach around the earth several times. That’s exactly why the system is so important and why vascular disease can be so serious. When blood flow to parts of your body is interrupted, the tissues may die. This could cause organ failure or the loss of a limb.
Even varicose veins are a mild form of vascular disease caused by a related medical condition known as venous insufficiency.
Venous insufficiency causes the valves in the leg vein to stop working properly. The blood begins to pool and stagnate in the veins instead of flowing along the circulatory system as it should. When this happens, you may notice the following symptoms:
- Leathery, flaking leg skin
- Leg swelling
- Stasis ulcers
- Tired, aching legs
- Varicose veins
If the venous insufficiency isn’t treated, it can create open sores on the skin’s surface that can be hard to heal. These sores can also spread to other areas in a dangerous condition known as cellulitis.
In short, you should be on the lookout for changes in the skin of your legs. Your legs could be colder and your skin more brittle. You may develop bluish-red discolorations on your legs. Sharp, severe pains in the legs could mean an artery is blocked.
To diagnose vascular disease, your doctor will conduct a thorough exam and order testing such as:
- Angiogram, or an X-ray of the arteries and veins to look for problems
- Ankle-brachial index (ABI) or a photoplethysmography (PPG) to compare the blood pressures in your extremities
- Doppler ultrasound flow studies, which use high-frequency sound waves to map out the vascular system and surrounding organs
- Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), which uses magnets, radio frequencies, computer software, and a special dye to visualize blood vessels
- Pulse volume recording (PVR) waveform analysis that calculates your leg blood volume
- Reactive hyperemia, which is similar to the treadmill test but for people that can’t walk
- Treadmill exercise test where the doctor monitors blood circulation as you walk
Vascular disease is treated by controlling the symptoms, stopping the progression of the disease, and lessening the risk of life-threatening complications. This could include:
- Angioplasty to increase blood flow in an artery
- Lifestyle changes to promote health
- Medications to improve your blood flow
- Treatment of underlying conditions like diabetes
- Vascular surgery to unblock arteries
Once the function of the veins has been impeded, they cannot be repaired. However, there are ways to minimize the impact of venous insufficiency. For example:
- Avoiding foods that cause inflammation
- Elevating the legs can naturally bring blood back toward the heart
- Exercise can keep the blood flowing
- Staying well-hydrated
- Taking care of your skin
- Wearing compression stockings can relieve swelling
You can prevent vascular disease by taking steps to reduce the risk of developing the condition. We know there are several risk factors for atherosclerosis, which is a primary cause of vascular disease. For example:
- A diet high in saturated fats
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol and triglycerides
- Physical inactivity
Since there are often no signs before serious vascular disease causes a stroke or heart attack, reducing your risk factors is the best way to try to prevent these disorders. Changing your diet, exercising and controlling underlying health conditions will all help you lessen the risk of developing serious vascular disease.