Vascular disease (vasculopathy) affects the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients throughout your body and remove waste from your tissues. Common vascular problems happen because plaque (made of fat and cholesterol) slows down or blocks blood flow inside your arteries or veins. Lifestyle changes often help, but some people need medication or surgery.
Vascular disease includes any condition that affects your circulatory system, or system of blood vessels. This ranges from diseases of your arteries, veins and lymph vessels to blood disorders that affect circulation.
Blood vessels are elastic-like tubes that carry blood to every part of your body. Blood vessels include:
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Some vascular diseases affect your arteries, while others occur in your veins. They can also happen only in specific parts of your body.
Like the blood vessels of your heart (coronary arteries), your peripheral arteries (blood vessels outside your heart) also may develop atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque (fat and cholesterol deposits), inside them. Over time, the buildup narrows the artery. Eventually, the narrowed artery causes less blood to flow, which may lead to ischemia, or inadequate blood flow to your body's tissue. Types of peripheral arterial disease include:
These happen in the two main carotid arteries in your neck.
Veins are flexible, hollow tubes with flaps inside, called valves. When your muscles contract, these one-way valves open, and blood moves through your veins. When your muscles relax, the valves close, keeping blood flowing in one direction through your veins.
If the valves inside your veins become damaged, the valves may not close completely. This allows blood to flow in both directions. When your muscles relax, the valves inside the damaged vein(s) will not be able to hold the blood. This can cause pooling of blood or swelling in your veins. The veins bulge and look like ropes under the skin. The blood begins to move more slowly through your veins and may stick to the sides of your vessel walls. Symptoms include heaviness, aching, swelling, throbbing or itching. Blood clots can form.
A clot forms when clotting factors in your blood make it coagulate or become a solid, jelly-like mass. When a blood clot forms inside a blood vessel (a thrombus), it can come loose and travel through your bloodstream, causing a deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, heart attack or stroke.
Blood clots in your arteries can increase the risk for stroke, heart attack, severe leg pain, difficulty walking or even the loss of a limb.
An aneurysm is an abnormal bulge in a blood vessel wall. Aneurysms can form in any blood vessel, but they occur most commonly in the aorta (aortic aneurysm) which is the main blood vessel leaving the heart:
Fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD): A rare medical condition in which people have abnormal cellular growth in the walls of their medium and large arteries. This can cause the arteries with abnormal growth to look beaded and become narrow. This can cause issues with the arteries, including aneurysms and dissection.
The lymphatic system includes an extensive network of lymph vessels and lymph nodes that helps coordinate your immune system's function to protect your body from foreign substances. Lymphedema, an abnormal buildup of fluid, develops when lymph vessels or lymph nodes are missing, impaired, damaged or removed.
Your blood vessels can get inflamed because of a medicine, an infection or an unknown cause. This can make it hard for blood to travel through your blood vessels. This is sometimes associated with rheumatological conditions or connective tissue disease. Vasculitis can also cause an aneurysm.
Some people are born with vascular diseases they inherit from their parents. In these cases, such as blood clotting disorders, they start dealing with this issue at a younger age. However, many vascular diseases develop over time because of an accumulation of plaque (fat and cholesterol) in the arteries, such as peripheral artery disease or carotid artery disease. Atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries, can start when you’re a teen and cause problems in middle age or later.
Vascular diseases are very common in America, partly because so many people weigh too much and have diabetes. The most common vascular diseases include peripheral artery disease (PAD) and carotid artery disease.
Symptoms vary depending on the type of vascular disease.
Fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD): Neck pain, vision changes, high blood pressure, dizziness, hearing a “whooshing sensation” or hearing your heartbeat in your ears.
Swelling, most often in your arms or legs.
Not feeling well, fever, swelling.
For some vascular problems, the cause isn’t known. Vascular disease causes include:
Your healthcare provider will want to do a physical exam and get your medical history, as well as a history of which diseases are in your family. It helps your healthcare provider look for vascular disease when you take your shoes and socks off before they examine you.
Depending on the type of vascular disease your provider suspects, they may do blood tests and imaging.
Many vascular diseases involve clots or blockages in blood vessels. To diagnose these, your healthcare provider needs to be able to see inside your blood vessels using imaging methods that include:
Eating healthier and exercising more can help with many vascular diseases. For others, you may need to take medicine or have a surgical procedure. Vascular disease treatments vary depending on the condition.
Any medicine can have side effects, but the benefits of medicines usually make them worth taking. Side effects often go away. If they don’t, you can ask your healthcare provider to switch you to a different drug.
When considering a procedure or surgery, talk to your provider about the risks and benefits. What’s right for your neighbor may not be the right treatment for you.
You can’t do anything about your age, family history or genetics, but you can:
Vascular disease can be a lifelong problem. Once your healthcare provider knows you have plaque accumulations in your blood vessels, they’ll want you to make some changes to how you live. These changes, such as exercising, not using tobacco products and choosing healthier foods, are things you’ll need to keep doing for years to come. You may also need to take medicines to decrease your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
The outlook for many vascular conditions is good if your healthcare provider catches the problem early. Many vascular issues get harder to treat as they get worse. Some vascular conditions, such as carotid artery dissection, abdominal aortic aneurysm and pulmonary embolism, can be life-threatening.
In addition to the things mentioned above, you’ll also want to keep taking medicines your healthcare provider prescribes and keep going to your regular checkups.
Contact your provider if anything changes with your vascular issue or if you have a problem with the medication they prescribed.
Call 911 if you have:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
With vascular disease, the best thing you can do is stay vigilant. Don’t skip any medical checkups or medicine doses. Because some vascular issues run in families, sharing health information with your family can help them prevent and be on the lookout for vascular disease. Encourage your family to get their blood pressure and cholesterol checked since high levels put them at risk for vascular diseases.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/22/2022.
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