Vascular disease

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at November 22, 2016
StartDiseasesVascular disease

Millions of Americans suffer from some type of vascular disease every year. Particularly for those over the age of 60, vascular diseases are among the most common health conditions in the world.


Definition & Facts

Vascular disease includes any condition that specifically affects the body's network of blood vessels. Arteries carry oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the body's tissues, while veins take the blood back to the heart. Vascular disease can damage these arteries and veins that comprise the circulatory system and compromise the circulation of blood within the system.

Vascular diseases encompasses many different medical conditions which can range from arterial problems to blood clotting disorders. Many of these are slow, progressive, and potentially life-threatening.

Symptoms & Complaints

According to the Massachusetts General Hospital, approximately half of the people diagnosed with peripheral vascular disease (vascular diseases outside of the brain and heart) experience very few symptoms at all. Those who do exhibit symptoms, however, are most likely to suffer from a combination of fatigue and cramping in the legs and feet, which is typically exacerbated by exercise and physical exertion.

As the disease progresses throughout the circulatory system, the pain can grow quite severe. In certain cases, it can potentially lead to the death of tissue, also known as gangrene. Other symptoms of vascular disease include impotence, a weak pulse, hair loss around the legs, muscle numbness or muscle weakness, decreased mobility, wounds or ulcers that won't heal, and discoloration of skin or decreased skin temperature in the legs and arms.

Some patients may also experience pain and cramping while lying flat in bed. However, because there is a great deal of overlap between the symptoms of vascular disease and other medical conditions, only a medical professional can determine a proper diagnosis.


The most common cause of vascular disease is the buildup of plaque inside the wall of the arteries, which is commonly known as atherosclerosis. Plaque restricts the flow of blood to many of the body's organs and limbs, therefore depriving them of vital oxygen and nutrients. Excessive blood clotting is another potential condition that can decrease the flow of blood throughout the body.

The risk factors for vascular diseases can vary greatly depending on one's habits and medical history. People who already suffer from diabetes mellitus or smoke on a regular basis are most at risk of a vascular disease. High blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol levels (hypercholesterolemia), pregnancy, low physical activity, malnutrition or obesity, drug use, and a prior history of cardiovascular disease or stroke also increase the odds.

Many of these risk factors can be mitigated or avoided altogether. However, other risk factors, such as age and genetic factors, are impossible to avoid or control. Men also tend to be more at risk of developing vascular diseases than women, although women who are post-menopause may have an increased risk.

Diagnosis & Tests

People who suspect they may suffer from vascular diseases should immediately seek a diagnosis from a healthcare provider. Complications from an untreated vascular disorder can be life-threatening, possibly leading to a heart attack, a stroke, or loss of a limb.

Medical professionals may be able to properly diagnose a vascular condition by checking for signs of narrowing blood vessels and a weak pulse during a physical examination. If the doctors need more information or suspect that their patient has a serious condition, they might recommend further tests.

For example, a simple treadmill exercise test can allow doctors to monitor blood circulation during exercise (there is also an alternative to this test for people who are not physically capable of walking on a treadmill). An angiography, which is one of the most common advanced diagnostic tools, uses an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to visualize the inside of blood vessels and organs by injecting a special dye into the bloodstream.

As an alternative to this more invasive procedure, an ultrasound machine can use sound waves to monitor the flow of blood through the body. The absence of sound would indicate a possible blockage of the blood vessels.

Treatment & Therapy

Depending upon the type and severity of the disease, vascular diseases may or may not require serious treatment options. Lifestyle choices can prevent complications and include the following:

Most of these suggestions can be easily implemented at home, although specific diet or exercise advice may require special guidance from a doctor.

If lifestyle changes are not enough, doctors could also prescribe medications. Two of the most common medications are cilostazol, which increases blood flow throughout the circulatory system, and clopidogrel, which inhibits blood clotting. In addition, people who have been diagnosed with diabetes, high blood cholesterol, or high blood pressure may also need specific medication to treat these conditions.

If, at some point during the progression of the disease, medication alone does not suffice, surgery may become necessary to deal with any blockages in the circulatory system. Doctors may recommend performing either vascular surgery, in which a bypass graft or synthetic tube is inserted to redirect the flow of blood around the blocked artery, or an angioplasty, in which the affected artery is directly opened and the blockage is diminished. 

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Ultimately, the risk of having a vascular disease can be significantly minimized before surgery even becomes necessary by reducing the relevant risk factors.

People who are not yet experiencing symptoms but have concerns that their lifestyle may not be sufficient to avoid certain types of vascular disease can easily improve their odds by making change to their diet, habits, and exercise routine, or by taking the necessary medication recommended by doctors. As always, anyone who is concerned about vascular disease should seek medical help from a healthcare provider.