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Help for Patients and Caregivers : Vascular Disease

Quick reference directory

What is Vascular Disease?
What are the symptoms of Vascular Disease?
Diagnosing Vascular Disease?
What causes Vascular Disease?
Preventing Vascular Disease

 


What is Vascular Disease?

The vascular system is the network of blood vessels that circulate blood to and from the heart and lungs. Vascular diseases are very common, especially as people age. Many people have these diseases and don’t know it, because they rarely cause symptoms in the early stages. People with risk factors or any signs or symptoms of vascular disease, should be evaluated by a physician. Untreated vascular disease can lead to serious health problems, such as tissue death and gangrene requiring amputation or other surgery; chronic disability and pain; and weakened blood vessels that may rupture without warning. Deadly complications can result, including stroke (a clogged or narrowed blood vessel cuts the supply of blood to the brain), and pulmonary embolism (a blood clot breaks loose and travels to the heart and lungs).


What are the symptoms of Vascular Disease?

What are the Symptoms of Vein Disease?

Swelling and discoloration of the leg is a sign of Deep Vein Thrombosis
Swelling and discoloration of the leg is a sign of Deep Vein Thrombosis

There may be no symptoms of venous disease caused by blood clots until the clot grows large enough to block the flow of blood through the vein. Symptoms may then come on suddenly:

  • Pain
  • Sudden swelling in the affected limb
  • Enlargement of the superficial veins
  • Reddish-blue discoloration
  • Skin that is warm to the touch

What are the symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism?

  • A sudden feeling of apprehension
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sharp chest pain
  • Rapid pulse
  • Sweating
  • Cough with bloody sputum
  • Fainting

If you experience the sudden onset of any of these symptoms, contact your doctor or seek emergency treatment immediately!

Varicose veins , also called "varicoceles," result when the valves that control the flow of blood in and out of veins fail to work properly and the pull of gravity causes blood to pool in the legs or elsewhere. Varicoceles in the scrotum may cause infertility in men. Varicoceles in the veins of the ovaries may cause chronic pelvic pain in some women.

When valves fail in the legs, the superficial veins become enlarged and twisted, where they appear as twisted, dark blue vessels just under the skin’s surface. Smaller varicose veins are sometimes called spider veins. Obesity, pregnancy, constriction of the veins with garters or tight clothing, and an inherited tendency are among the contributing causes of varicose veins. Usually, there are no symptoms. Varicose veins are diagnosed by physical examination.

Women between the ages of 30 and 70 are most often affected by Varicose Veins. In the United States, 10 percent of men and 20 percent of women have varicose or spider veins. Treatment usually is not required. While most treatment is sought for cosmetic reasons – to improve the appearance of the veins in the legs – some varicose veins are painful and require treatment for medical reasons.

Symptoms of Varicose Veins

Most varicose veins have no symptoms other than the appearance of purplish, knotted veins on the surface of the skin. A physician should be consulted and treatment may be required if there is:

  • Pain or heaviness in the leg, feet and ankles,
  • Swelling,
  • Sores or ulcers on the skin, or
  • Severe bleeding if the vein is injured.

Phlebitis is an inflammation of a vein that can be due to bacterial infection, injury or unknown causes. Thrombophlebitis is inflammation that results from the formation of a blood clot in an arm or leg vein. It can occur in a superficial vein near the skin surface or in a deep vein. Pain and inflammation are the most common symptoms. Unfortunately, in the case of thrombophlebitis in the deep veins (see deep vein thrombosis) there may be no symptoms unless the clot travels to the lungs, resulting in a life-threatening pulmonary embolism.

Venous stasis disease also is caused by defective values in the veins, but it is far more serious than varicose veins. If a damaged valve does not close completely, pooled blood can build up in the veins causing pain, swelling and tissue damage that may lead to painful sores or ulcers. Chronic venous stasis disease can result in devastating disfigurement, disability and a lifetime of treatments and hospital stays. Fortunately, early diagnosis and treatment can avoid these long-term effects.


Diagnosing Vascular Disease?

Diagnosing Venous Disease and Pulmonary Embolism

Venous disease is diagnosed using one or more of the following techniques:

Ultrasound is a technique in which a "transducer" (a hand held device about the size of a computer mouse) is moved over the skin and harmless sound waves "bounce" back signals that are computerized to create an image. The technique is painless and has no known risk. Here, a "colorized" ultrasound image highlights the blood vessels.
Ultrasound is a technique in which a "transducer" (a hand held device about the size of a computer mouse) is moved over the skin and harmless sound waves "bounce" back signals that are computerized to create an image. The technique is painless and has no known risk. Here, a "colorized" ultrasound image highlights the blood vessels.

Duplex or Doppler Ultrasound – This non-invasive technique uses ultrasound to "see" clots or other abnormalities in the blood vessels.

CT Scan (Computed Tomography) is similar to an X-ray except the images are computerized to appear as a series of slides. When viewed together, the slices provide a three-dimensional image. Sometimes a special dye, or contrast agent, is injected or swallowed before the exam to highlight the images.

Venography is a type of X-ray (called angiography) in which a thin, flexible tube, or catheter, is threaded into the blood vessels. A local anesthetic is given to numb the skin where the catheter is inserted, and X-rays are used to guide the catheter. A contrast agent, or dye, is injected through the catheter to highlight the blood vessel and call attention to any abnormalities. This procedure is performed by an interventional radiologist – a specialist who diagnoses and treats many vascular diseases and other conditions without surgery.

Magnetic Resonance Angiography (MRA) is a noninvasive exam in which a magnetic resonance (MR) scanner uses harmless but powerful magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of the blood vessels.

Diagnosing Pulmonary Embolism

V/Q Scan (sometimes called a V/P or ventilation/perfusion scan) is a nuclear medicine test in which short-acting radioactive particles are injected through a vein or breathed into the lungs. If there are areas of the lung that do not “take up” the particles, it is an indication that there may be a blood clot. Computed tomography (CT), chest X-rays or venography also may be used to diagnose blood clots in the lung.


What Causes Vascular Disease?

Risk Factors that increase the chances of venous disease include:

  • A family history.
  • Increasing age that results in a loss of elasticity in the veins and their valves
  • Pregnancy
  • Illness or injury
  • Prolonged periods of inactivity – sitting, standing or bed rest.
  • Hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol
  • Other conditions that affect the health of the cardiovascular system
  • Smoking
  • Obesity

Preventing Vascular Disease

The best way to prevent vascular disease is to live a “heart healthy” lifestyle – don’t smoke; eat nutritious, low fat foods; exercise; control risk factors and maintain a healthy weight.

Life style changes. The single most effective steps you can take to prevent vascular disease are to quit smoking and control high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and other factors that contribute to vascular disease. Regular exercise, eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight also are important.


For more information on Vascular Disease visit

Vascular Disease Foundation
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
American Heart Association
Society Of Interventional Radiology