When your circulatory system is running tickety-boo, you rarely pay it any attention. But when things go wrong, it can be life threatening. Noticing problems or changes in your veins and arteries and seeking swift medical advice could save your life someday.
Your arteries carry oxygenated blood from the heart to the rest of the body, while veins carry unoxygenated blood back up the lungs. Your heart acts as the pump that keeps the whole circulatory system moving. While it may sound straightforward, there are a number of complications that can occur within your arteries or veins, potentially preventing your organs or limbs from receiving oxygen, essential nutrients and immune support.
If you’ve ever cut yourself, you’ve probably noticed that the blood coming out of the wound thickens and eventually clots, preventing further bleeding. This is a natural and helpful mechanism caused when platelets stick together. However, if your blood is moving too slowly through blood vessels, often because blood vessels are damaged by plaque, your blood may clot inside the vessel. When these semisolid masses are stationary, they are known as thrombosis, when they break loose and travel around your circulatory system they are known as embolisms. These can be dangerous and may even cause a heart attack or stroke if they travel to or occur in the heart or brain.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a type of blood clot that forms deep in a vein, usually in the leg. Sitting in a car or plane seat for a long period, being on prolonged bed rest, illness or surgery can slow blood flow and increase the risk of DVT. DVT is dangerous as clots can break free and travel up the vein to the lungs, known as a pulmonary embolism (PE). PE can block blood from flowing in and out of your lungs, preventing oxygen from travelling around your body. If you don’t seek medical attention immediately, PE can be life threatening. You may notice pain in your chest and feel a sudden shortness of breath.
Diagnosing blood clots will likely involve a physical examination by a doctor, a venous ultrasound or a CT angiography of areas such as the head, chest, pelvis and abdomen.
Chronic venous insufficiency (CVI)
CVI is often caused when the valves in the veins in your legs are damaged by blood clots, or when you spend an extended period of time sitting down. These valves open and close to keep blood moving up the leg towards the heart. When these valves don’t close all the way, blood can flow back down the leg and pool in the veins. CVI is more common in women than men and occurs more often in people over the age of 50. Symptoms include swelling in the legs and ankles, a feeling of tightness in the calves, painful or itchy legs, varicose veins, brown coloured skin near the ankles, leg ulcers and pain when walking.
Coronary artery disease
Plaque, a type of sticky fat, can build up on the walls of your coronary arteries, narrowing the space that blood has to travel to the heart. Should one of these pieces of plaque break off, it can become stuck in an artery, completely cutting off blood supply and causing a heart attack. Many people won’t realise that they have coronary artery disease until they have a heart attack or angina. Angina is sometimes mistaken for heartburn. The symptoms of angina include chest pain, numbness, burning, pressure, aching, weakness or dizziness. These symptoms are usually felt in the chest, but may also be felt in the back, neck, jaw, shoulders and arms.
This build-up and breaking off of plaque can happen in other arteries including the carotid arteries, which run up either side of your neck and supply blood to the brain and face. This can fully prevent or limit blood flow to the brain, causing a stroke.
Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
PAD involves the build-up of plaque in the walls of the peripheral arteries, which carry blood to the arms and legs. This can limit or prevent the movement of oxygenated blood and nutrients to your limbs and increase your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Symptoms include numbness or weakness in the legs, painful cramps in the legs or hips after walking or climbing stairs, discolouring of the legs, cold lower legs or feet, weak pulse in the legs and erectile dysfunction in men.
These are diseases that limit the supply of blood to the brain. They include narrowed blood vessels, stroke, vascular malformation (abnormal clusters of blood) and aneurysms (weakened arteries).
If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention right away.
- chest pain
- rapid heartbeat
- dizziness or fainting
- a sudden shortness of breath
- sudden double or blurred vision
- numbness or weakness in the face or body
- difficulty seeing or speaking
After an injury, surgery or prolonged bed rest, swelling and irritation can cause a clot to form in one of your veins. While some clots may form in deeper blood vessels, those that form close to the surface of the skin can be seen and may look like lumpy bulges. Blood thinners can help to prevent a clot from growing in size.
Are you concerned about the health of your arteries and veins? Have you or a member of your family had trouble with any of these conditions?
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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.