The heart pumps blood to the body through a system of vessels called the circulatory system. Arteries carry the oxygen-rich blood from the heart, and the veins carry it back again. Vascular disease is disease of these vessels, as well as of those in the lymphatic system, which is a system intertwined with the circulatory system that removes liquid from the tissues in the body and carries it to the circular system.
The most common vascular disease in the United States is hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), which occurs when plaque builds up on the artery walls and interrupts the normal flow of blood and oxygen to the body. Organs in the body can be damaged when they do not receive enough blood, and atherosclerosis can lead to heart attack and stroke.
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Common Causes of Vascular Disease
- Aneurysm (a ballooning of the vessel wall which may lead to rupture or a hole within the artery)
- Blood clots in the legs (deep vein thrombosis) that can travel into the lung and cause a pulmonary embolism
- Peripheral venous (vein) disease, when the valves in the veins are damaged so the blood is unable to return effectively to the heart
- Blood clotting disorders
- Lymphedema, when the lymphatic system is damaged or not working properly, which can cause swelling, discomfort, and recurring infections
People who smoke, who are overweight, and who live a sedentary lifestyle are at risk for vascular disease caused by atherosclerosis.
Also people with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes are at risk. While it is very important to control all of these factors, it is necessary to understand that one risk factor that cannot be controlled is heredity, which can play a major role. Trauma, the removal of lymph nodes, and cancer surgery and radiation treatment can result in lymphedema. Vascular surgeons specialize in treating patients with these diseases and conditions, even when surgery is not indicated.