Vascular diseases are pretty common. Here's what they are and what increases your risk.

woman vascular disease questionsVascular diseases may not be something you talk about every day, but they are more common than you think. They refer to any type of condition that affects your circulatory system – from your arteries that carry blood away from your heart to your veins that return blood to the heart, as well as the many capillaries that carry oxygen, nutrients and waste through your bloodstream.

What are some common vascular diseases?

There are a variety of vascular diseases and some are more common than others. Examples of vascular diseases include:

  • Coronary artery disease: This involves a narrowing or blockage of an artery of the heart due to a build-up of plaque (referred to as atherosclerosis). You may feel chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue or light-headedness. If the blockage is severe, it may lead to a heart attack.
  • Carotid artery disease: If plaque builds up in the arteries supplying blood to the brain, it can lead to a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA).
  • Peripheral artery disease: There may also be a build-up of plaque in other arteries of your body, such as those in your legs. When this occurs, it causes less blood to flow, which can lead to pain, numbness, tingling and even the loss of a limb.
  • Atherosclerosis: The plaque that builds up inside arteries is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances. In addition to affecting arteries in the heart, brain and legs, plaque may cause blockages in arteries in other parts of the body, such as the kidneys, gastrointestinal system or groin.
  • Aneurysm: This refers to a bulge in the wall of an artery that weakens the wall and may cause it to rupture.
  • Blood clots: Various conditions put people at an increased risk for developing blood clots. This can increase the risk for stroke, heart attack, pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis or loss of a limb.
  • Vasculitis: This is a condition in which there is inflammation in the blood vessels. It can occur due to an infection, as a reaction to a medication or from an unknown cause.
  • Varicose veins: If the valves inside your veins become damaged, they may not close completely. This allows blood to flow in both directions, which can cause the blood in your veins to pool. The veins may look like they're purple, swollen or ropy and may ache, throb, feel heavy or itch.

What increases your risk of vascular diseases?

Since there are many types of vascular diseases, they may have different risk factors. Some of the more common risk factors include:

  • Overweight/obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Infections
  • Injuries
  • Medications
  • Genetics/family history

In some cases, the cause of a vascular disease is not known.

What should you do if you think you have a vascular disease?

Symptoms of vascular diseases can differ greatly depending on where the problem is located and how severe it is. If you have any symptoms that make you think you may have a vascular disease, such as pain, numbness, weakness, tingling, heaviness or swelling, tell your doctor. A physical exam will be done and tests may be ordered to diagnose the condition.

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Date Last Reviewed: March 15, 2024

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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