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9 Surprising Facts About Vascular Disease

Source: Marijke Vroomen Durning, RNLast Updated: March 19, 2020


What Is Vascular Disease and Why Should You Know About It?

Despite how common it is, vascular disease is not well-known among the general public. Vascular disease symptoms are pretty well non-existent in the early stages, so unless the problem is found earlier through screening, vascular disease treatment only begins once there has been damage to the blood vessels. Whether the problem is peripheral artery disease, varicose veins, or an aneurysm, among others, it’s important to learn the facts about vascular disease, what it is, and what it can do to your body.


1. Vascular disease is an umbrella term for many conditions.

Vascular disease is a broad term that covers several types of conditions related to your arteries, veins, and lymphatic system. The most common types of vascular disease include peripheral artery disease (PAD), atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), deep vein thrombosis (DVT), carotid artery disease, abdominal aortic aneurysm, varicose veins, and Raynaud’s phenomenon. Some of these conditions are more serious than others, but all are managed by vascular surgeons who are specialists in managing vascular disease.


2. Vascular disease is common but many don’t know they have it.

Vascular disease is surprisingly common. One type—peripheral artery disease—affects about 8.5 million people in the United States, while DVTs and pulmonary emboli may affect as many as 900,000 people each year. However, most vascular disease is ‘silent’ and doesn’t cause any signs or symptoms until there is significant damage. For example, plaque can start to build up in your arteries, causing atherosclerosis, but until there is a blockage that could cause a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke, you are not aware you have vascular disease.


3. Some types of vascular disease can be life-threatening, so screening is important.

An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA), a type of vascular disease, occurs when a section of the arterial wall weakens. The wall stretches and thins out, making it vulnerable to a rupture. Since there are no symptoms, this is often fatal. Screening guidelines suggest men ages 65 to 75 who smoke or who did smoke should be screened for AAA at least once. Doctors may still consider ordering the screening for men in this age group who never smoked. Your doctor may screen you for other vascular disease as well, such as atherosclerosis. There are no expert recommendations for screening among women.


4. Not all vascular disease is life-threatening. Conditions like DVTs can also be dangerous because pieces of plaque can break away and cause a pulmonary embolism. But other types of vascular disease, like varicose veins, aren’t so serious. That doesn’t mean they aren’t troublesome, however. Varicose veins in your legs can be unsightly and they can cause a throbbing or aching pain, particularly if you have been sitting for an extended time. Another example is Raynaud’s phenomenon, which can cause your hands or feet to feel cold or perhaps burning and tingling.

5. Not all types of vascular disease require medical treatment.

Some types of vascular disease, such as large or growing aortic aneurysms, are medical emergencies and must be treated urgently. Other types, like atherosclerosis are usually treated, but how aggressively depends on how severe the condition is. Others, like varicose veins you might manage at home with compression stockings and lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, exercising, avoiding standing or sitting for long periods, and elevating your legs. Your doctor will advise you on what type of treatment you need for your particular condition.


6. Erectile dysfunction can be a sign of vascular disease. Vascular disease doesn’t usually cause any signs or symptoms in the early stages. For men, the first sign there is a problem may be erectile dysfunction. Because vascular disease can affect blood flow throughout your body, it can also interrupt blood flow to the penis. This can make it difficult to obtain and maintain an erection. Unexplained erectile dysfunction among men younger than 60 who have no risk factors for heart disease could be a sign of coronary artery disease or vascular disease in general.

7. Having diabetes increases your risk of vascular disease. Excess blood glucose (sugar) caused by diabetes can damage your blood vessels. This is one reason why good diabetes management is vital. If you have diabetes, you can lower your risk of developing vascular disease by eating a healthy diabetes-friendly diet, exercising, and following your diabetes treatment plan. If you have concerns about your diabetes control or your risk of vascular disease, speak with your diabetes team to discuss your treatment and any further steps you may take to stay as healthy as possible.

8. Smoking is a major cause of vascular disease. Everyone knows the dangers related to smoking when it comes to lung health, but smoking is also a major factor in developing vascular disease. Smoking affects the health of your blood vessels and increases your risk of developing atherosclerosis and peripheral artery disease. In turn, the combination of smoking and vascular disease increases your risk of having heart disease, a heart attack, or a stroke. If you want to stop smoking and are having difficulty doing so, speak with your doctor. There are programs geared towards helping people stop smoking. 9. Vascular disease can lead to amputations. Peripheral artery disease can limit the blood flow to your limbs, especially your legs. If the blood flow is severely compromised, the tissues don’t get the oxygen and nutrients they need to stay healthy. This can lead to sores that won’t heal, infections, tissue death, and gangrene. When the damage is extensive, often the only treatment is amputation of the limb to prevent further problems affecting the rest of your body. Over half (54%) of limb amputations in the United States are due to vascular disease.

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