Your arteries, veins, and capillaries are like the highways, thoroughfares, and side streets your body uses to deliver oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to your organs and tissues. This network makes up your vascular system (also known as your circulatory system).
When you develop a condition that negatively affects this system, it is called vascular disease. Typically, blood flow is impeded due to blocked or weakened blood vessels, or possibly damage to the valves in your veins.
Around 10 million Americans today have some form of vascular disease.
What Causes Vascular Disease?
There are a few causes of vascular disease, but the most common is atherosclerosis. Over time, your blood vessels may develop fatty deposits known as plaque. These deposits build up and obstruct blood flow. Although atherosclerosis begins slowly, it may progress rapidly. If the vessel becomes completely blocked, organs and tissues no longer receive the oxygen and nutrients they need.
Other causes include:
- Embolus: Miniscule debris in the bloodstream
- Thrombus: A blood clot
- Trauma: Injury to a blood vessel
- Vasculitis: Inflammation of a blood vessel
- Genetic: Some vascular conditions are inherited
What Are the Symptoms of Vascular Disease?
Vascular disease often goes undiagnosed because its symptoms so closely resemble what we think of as the common signs of age. But, if you experience any of the following, talk to your doctor, particularly if you also have one of the risk factors.
- Experiencing leg pain while lying down that is relieved by hanging your leg over the side of the bed
- Experiencing leg pain while sitting that is relieved by using a footstool
- Feeling pain, cramps, aches, numbness, or tingling from the waist down for the first few minutes of walking
- The skin on your feet and legs is dry and scaly
- You are impotent (men)
- You do not have a pulse in your foot
- You have a wound or sore on your foot that doesn’t heal
- You have cold feet AND cold or numb calves
- Your foot or leg turns blue or red when you sit or stand
- Your legs have less hair growth
It is also possible to have vascular disease without presenting any symptoms.
What Are the Risk Factors of Vascular Disease?
If you have even one of these risk factors, your odds of developing vascular disease increase dramatically:
- Smoke or use tobacco
- Have high blood pressure
- Have diabetes
- Have high cholesterol
- Are obese
- Do not exercise
- Have a family history
Risk also increases as you age.
Improve Circulation to Reduce Risk or Manage Your Symptoms
Healthy lifestyle changes are your best bet to reduce your risk of developing vascular disease (or managing the condition after diagnosis).
First, if you smoke or use tobacco, stop. This is the biggest risk factor that you have control over. Next, make sure you follow a diet that is low in saturated fats and cholesterol to reduce the buildup of plaque and fat deposits in your arteries.
You’ll improve circulation and promote blood vessel growth with moderate exercise, particularly walking. If you are obese, these diet and exercise changes should help you reach a healthy weight.
If you have high blood pressure, work with your doctor to get it below 140/90 (130/80 for diabetes patients). If you have diabetes, work with your doctor to manage your blood glucose levels.
The Importance of Foot Care in Vascular Health
Foot care is a key component of vascular health, since circulation problems often result in foot problems.
Check your feet daily – including the bottoms – for blisters, cuts, cracks, sores, etc. You may need to use a mirror or ask for assistance to do this. If you notice an injury that does not heal after a few days, talk to your doctor right away.
When bathing, wash your feet well using warm water and a mild soap, but do not soak them. Dry them well, including between your toes, and apply a small amount of fragrance-free lotion (do not put the lotion between your toes).
Wear shoes and socks at all times and never walk barefoot. Choose comfortable shoes that fit well.
When sitting, cross your legs at the ankles, not the knees, and avoid crossing them for long periods of time. Finally, wiggle your toes and rotate your ankles two or three times each day for around five minutes each time.
How to Implement a Walking Program
Implementing a walking program is the best way to improve circulation and fight vascular disease. Even if you currently experience pain while walking, you can work your way up to an hour-per-day walking program (if your doctor approves).
You don’t need a gym membership or expensive equipment to start walking. All you need is a pair of high quality walking shoes and a place to walk. This could be your local mall, sidewalks or pathways in your neighborhood, or a treadmill.
Start with a slow, five-minute warmup and then increase your pace. If you feel pain, walk another 30 yards or stop if the pain is severe. Remain standing until the pain lessens and then resume walking. Continue until your walking time (not including your rest periods) equals 30 to 35 minutes.
The goal is not speed; it’s time spent walking. Every week, try to add five to 10 minutes to your walk time until you reach 60 minutes. After that, you can work toward walking faster.
Final Thoughts on Vascular Health
Healthy lifestyle choices are an important part of reducing your risk of developing vascular disease. They also help manage your symptoms after diagnosis. Talk to your doctor about healthy changes you can make to diet and exercise. He or she can also work with you on a smoking cessation program (covered by Medicare Part B).
If your healthcare provider suggests testing for vascular disease, check your Medicare plan or Medigap policy for coverage.