Repairing your vascular system

The human body's vascular system consists of all the arteries, veins and smaller vessels that lead away from and back to the heart.

"This is the critical delivery system bringing oxygen, nutrients and blood elements to combat infection throughout the body," said Thomas Wareing, MD, an HonorHealth vascular surgeon. Here's how the vascular system works:

  • The main artery leading away from your heart is called the aorta, which looks a bit like a candy cane with branches. The heart pumps blood from the lower left chamber of the heart (called a ventricle) into the¬†aorta.
  • From there blood flows to the other arteries in your body, such as the carotid artery in your neck or the femoral artery in your thigh.
  • From these and other arteries, blood is carried to all of your organs, muscles and tissues.
  • As blood travels throughout the body, it delivers nutrients everywhere via increasingly smaller blood vessels.
  • Then the process reverses itself, and blood begins to travel back toward the right side of your heart through your veins. And the journey begins again as blood departs from the left side of the heart.

Symptoms include pain in extremities, skin changes

Sometimes, problems can develop that require evaluation by a doctor.

"Symptoms of what we call arterial vascular disease can include pain in the extremities, skin changes or even muscle paralysis in extreme cases," Dr. Wareing said.

These issues can be caused by the buildup of plaque, cholesterol and calcium that narrow the artery channels. Sometimes a blood clot can form, and that can put the health of your limbs in jeopardy or may even be life-threatening, he said.

Plaque build-up can weaken the wall of the arteries and cause the wall to expand and form an aneurysm, a balloon-like swelling on a vessel. "An aneurysm could potentially rupture and result in serious, or even fatal, bleeding," Dr. Wareing said.

Cardiologists and vascular specialists like Dr. Wareing often work together to help patients.

"Doctors use a variety of sophisticated technologies to assess your cardiovascular system," he said. "It's difficult for any single individual physician to be an expert in all of them. So we often work together as a team, closely coordinating all of our efforts."

Diagnosis and treatment

For example, he said, "if we encounter a patient with hardening of the arteries (called atherosclerosis) in one area of the body, we often have to screen all the other areas to identify where the disease has had its effects." Physicians use non-invasive methods such as ultrasound, X-rays and CT scans to help evaluate the magnitude of the problem.

Vascular specialists are able to treat vascular system conditions with modern technology. For example:

  • Blocked arteries can be treated with tiny balloons to open the blocked area. A stent inside the artery helps support its new expanded size.
  • Clot-dissolving agents speed up removal of blood clots.
  • Stents covered with special material simulating an artificial artery can be inserted inside an aneurysm to seal it and redirect the blood flow.

How to protect your vascular health

Good vascular health, Dr. Wareing said, requires regular check-ups with your primary care physician. He or she will monitor your blood pressure, levels of cholesterol and lipids (fats, oils and hormones), blood sugar and other important levels in your blood.

"It's also important to follow a healthy low-fat diet, get some modest exercise daily and stop any use of tobacco," Dr. Wareing said.

Learn more

If you'd like to check on the health of your vascular system, find a vascular specialist.

Find a vascular specialist