Vascular Diseases - Atherosclerosis

Heart Diseases Are Extensive

Nearly everything you read or hear about concerning the negative effects of smoking cites cancer and heart disease among the associated illnesses. When we think of heart disease, the first words that usually pop into our heads are "heart attack". However, heart disease, like stroke, is and there are many vascular diseases that are affected or incited by smoking. In other places on this site you can read about Raynaud phenomenon and Buerger disease, otherwise known as thromboangiitis obliterans. Buerger disease is a direct result of smoking.

Hardening of the Arteries

Vascular disease is primarily the result of atherosclerosis or as we commonly refer to it, hardening of the arteries. The hardening is due to the artery lining thickening from fatty deposits or plaques. This process is called atheroma. The Medical Dictionary defines atheroma as a fatty deposit (cholesterol). The combination of cholesterol, cells, and calcium eventually results in the formation of atheromatous plaques on the artery walls. These plaques reduce the interior diameter of the arteries and gradually obstruct them.

The arteries are the major carriers of blood, oxygen and nutrients to the body from the heart. When the arteries are narrowed due to plaque buildup, the hardened arteries do not allow blood flow through them to reach the tissues that need it. The parts of the body that are affected by these plugged arteries suffer severe consequences from the inadequate supply of blood. Poor function, tissue damage and, in the worst case scenario, death, are all possibilities with vascular disease. Vascular disease presents with different symptoms, depending upon where the it is located in the body. Most commonly affected are the arteries of the heart, brain and legs.

Cardiovascular Disease

When the arteries to the heart are hardened it is referred to as cardiovascular disease. Overall, a mild degree of atherosclerosis does not present any symptoms. When cases are more severe, coronary atherosclerosis may manifest chest pain upon exertion. The pain usually settles down with a few minutes of rest. Should the arteries that supply the heart (coronary arteries) become blocked the condition is called coronary thrombosis. In this case, the area of the heart that has been deprived of blood dies causing a myocardial infarction, or in layman's terms, a heart attack. If a person has risk factors for cardiovascular disease, the pain may also extend to the throat or left arm. If the pain doesn't settle in 20 minutes, emergency care is needed. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include heredity, being male, advanced age, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, lack of physical activity and smoking. While you can't do much about your heredity or gender, you can about the rest - and stopping smoking is a critical factor.

Blood Clots in the Brain

Cerebrovascular disease, cerebral thrombosis, occurs when the arteries in the brain are narrowed and blocked with clots. The clots can form in the main carotid arteries in the neck that supply blood to the brain. They can also occur in smaller cerebral arteries. Cerebral hemorrhaging happens when the smaller diseased arteries rupture and bleed into the brain. When either of these events occurs they are referred to as strokes - cerebrovascular accidents or CVAs. Normally, a stroke presents with symptoms that come on suddenly. They can include numbness or paralysis on one side of the body or the face, speech difficulties, difficulty swallowing, vision problems, and problems with balance and coordination.

When the Legs are Affected

Peripheral vascular disease is artherosclerosis in the legs. It can cause cramping pain in the leg muscles upon exertion that settles down quickly when resting. Initially, the pain begins in the calves with walking or effort expended but settles down with 15 minutes of resting. The pain results from the lack of blood getting to the leg muscles to power them for the exertion. In more advanced cases of peripheral vascular disease, there may be constant pain even at rest, ulceration of the lower leg and even gangrene in the toes and feet.