Just like your heart health, your vascular health is important to your overall well-being. Your vascular system helps with blood flow, delivering oxygen, nutrients, hormones and other necessary substances throughout the body to where they’re needed.
“Often, people think a vascular specialist is the same as a heart specialist, but that isn’t the case at all,” said Benjamin Jorgensen, M.D., a vascular specialist at Sanford Health. “To really understand what a vascular specialist does, we first have to talk a little about the vascular system.”
And when it comes to the vascular system, everything is centralized around the heart.
“If you think of the heart as the pump, then your blood vessels are the piping,” Dr. Jorgensen said. “These vessels — or pipes — allow the heart to move blood to the rest of your body.”
Your vascular system moves blood through a network of three types of vessels:
- Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to tissues and organs.
- Veins carry blood that is low in oxygen back to the heart to get an oxygen refill.
- Capillaries carry blood between the arteries and veins.
“Similar to the pipes in your house, many things can go wrong with your blood vessels. They can clog, they can break open, or they can degenerate and need replacement,” he said.
“We have vessels in our head, extremities and organs within our abdominal system,” said Dr. Jorgensen. “Vascular specialists offer care for all the vessels outside of your heart and brain.”
Treating diseases in the pathways
A vascular disease is any condition that affects the blood vessels and can include many serious, life-threatening conditions. The four most common conditions treated by vascular specialists include:
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD) occurs when the arteries that move blood away from the heart to the arms and legs get clogged. Rather than a steady blood flow, someone with PAD has narrowed or blocked arteries due to the buildup of a substance called plaque. “Plaque limits the ability of blood to move through the arteries and provide nourishment to organs and tissues throughout the body,” said Dr. Jorgensen, “causing damage or eventual tissue death if left untreated.”
- Carotid artery disease (CAD) is a blockage or narrowing of the arteries in the neck that supply blood to the head and brain. Untreated, CAD can lead to stroke, a serious medical condition where the blood supply to the brain is interrupted or seriously reduced, killing brain cells within minutes.
- Aneurysms are enlargements or abnormal bulges within the wall of a blood vessel. While they may occur in any blood vessel in the body, aneurysms most often affect the aorta, which is the heart’s main blood vessel. Should an aneurysm rupture, it can lead to fatal complications and bleeding.
- Venous disease occurs when the mechanism that helps blood flow back to the heart becomes damaged, leading to degenerated veins, also called varicose veins.
“Any of these vascular diseases can lead to major medical complications, including heart attack, stroke, kidney damage or failure, loss of a limb and even death if not treated. This is why symptoms should be taken seriously,” he explained.
Knowing when to see a specialist
A primary care provider can determine why you’re having symptoms and whether or not they indicate a vascular problem.
“Pain in your legs, especially when walking or with exercise, may be a sign you have a blockage in the arteries of your legs,” Dr. Jorgensen said. “However, there are also many other reasons why you could be having these symptoms, which is why your primary care provider is such a good resource.”
Vascular disease and heart disease often share many symptoms, so by treating or preventing heart disease, you can help decrease your risk of developing vascular disease as well.
Major risk factors of vascular disease include:
- Aching, cramping or pain in your arms, legs, thighs or buttocks while exercising
- Family history of abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA)
- High cholesterol or a history of high cholesterol
- High blood pressure or a history of high blood pressure
- Obesity or being overweight
- Smoking or a history of smoking
“There are also those risk factors we cannot change, such as family history, age and sex, that play a major role in vascular disease development,” said Dr. Jorgensen. “Having a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight are really important for decreasing your risk.”
And for those who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, it is especially important to have control of your condition to help decrease your risk.
The power of preventive screening
Sanford Health recommends a vascular screening once every three to five years for patients age 40 or older who have a personal or family history of cardiac disease, heart attack or stroke. If you have type 1 diabetes, vascular screening should start at age 30.
Vascular screening at Sanford Health includes:
- Carotid artery ultrasound to check for narrowing or a blockage in the main arteries of your neck
- Abdominal aortic aneurysm ultrasound to check for an aneurysm
- Ankle-brachial index to check for poor circulation or problems with circulation in the legs
What is found during screening determines the intervention or next steps, whether that be lifestyle changes or surgical options to treat a problem.
Sanford Health also offers varicose vein screening, which includes a physician consultation, ultrasound of your legs and treatment recommendations. Because varicose veins can be more than a physical discomfort or cosmetic concern, it can be beneficial to seek treatment if you are experiencing pain or discomfort.
Often, treatment for varicose veins does not require surgery, but simple lifestyle changes that are effective at decreasing symptoms and the appearance of varicose veins.
“It is never too early to begin a relationship with a vascular specialist,” said Dr. Jorgensen. “Vascular surgery is this amazing subspecialty of surgery where, similar to primary care, you get to know your patients and follow them long-term. A lot of vascular diseases can be managed if caught early, and we are here to help patients improve their quality of life.”
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