Did you know that your knowledge about your vascular health could save your life?
According to Dr. Jonathan Beers, internal medicine physician at Texas County Memorial Hospital, knowledge about vascular health can save your life and improve the quality of your life. Vascular health screenings are a routine part of healthcare exams for Beers’ patients.
In layman’s terms, the vascular system is a “highway” of vessels in every human body. Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood away from your heart, and veins carry oxygen-poor blood back to your heart. Sometimes the highway of vessels cannot do their job of transporting blood through your body because of vascular disease.
Vascular disease is a disease of the arteries and veins that blocks circulation anywhere in the body. Vascular disease is very serious. It can lead to disability, amputation, organ damage and even death.
Vascular disease manifests itself in many ways — deep vein thrombosis, peripheral artery disease, stroke and varicose veins are just a few indicators of vascular disease. However, vascular disease can begin long before a patient has a stroke or other outward sign of the disease.
“More awareness about vascular disease is needed,” Beers explains. “Patients should be routinely talking with their primary care provider about their vascular health.”
According to Beers, screening for vascular disease should begin for most patients around the age of 55. Beers noted that personal health history such as smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and poorly controlled cholesterol can lead to vascular disease and may indicate a need for vascular disease screening earlier in life.
“I typically ask my patients screening questions at first,” Beers said. Sometimes patients come in with physical complaints that may indicate the need for additional testing.
Symptoms of vascular disease may include pain in the legs — typically in the calves but also in the thighs or buttocks — and numbness or cold sensations in the extremities. A more obvious symptom would be a discolored or black toe.
An ankle brachial index (ABI) test can be ordered by physician to screen for vascular disease. These tests are usually administered in the hospital, and the test will indicate whether there is artery blockage in the legs.
“When a patient comes back with an abnormal ABI, I will treat them with medication and a supervised walking program,” Beers said.
Medications vary depending upon the patient and may be as common as aspirin or more complex drugs such as ones that that dilate the arteries to increase blood flow or anti-platelet drugs.
“In addition to the medication, patients walk to increase blood flow,” Beers said. “They walk until they have pain, and they do that every day, pushing further and hopefully improving.”
If medication and exercise do not improve a patient’s condition, surgical options are the next step.
“Treatment of vascular disease can greatly improve your quality of life,” Beers said. “It will ease symptoms of the disease that may cause you pain or discomfort, and it will increase your exercise capacity.”
Beers monitors his vascular disease patients with ABIs at least twice annually and more frequently when a patient is first diagnosed.
“With the proper care vascular disease can be controlled,” Beers said, adding that by taking the proper preventions early in life, less vascular disease would actually develop.
Beers is a big believer in vascular health. His mentor during residency at Gunderson Lutheran Hospital in LaCrosse, Wisc. was the director of the hospital’s vascular institute. Beers learned under him and developed an understanding of the importance of vascular health in the lives of his patients.
“The mortality rate of patients with vascular disease is much higher than other diseases that are aggressively treated,” Beers said. “If your vascular health is poor, you significantly increase your chance of stroke, heart attack and death.”
According to the American Diabetes Association, anyone with a history of smoking or anyone with diabetes should have an ABI at age 50. Anyone age 65 and older should also have a routine ABI.
“Vascular health is something that can be followed by your primary care physician, even after you’ve received treatment from a specialist,” Beers said. “With proper care vascular disease can be controlled.”
Beers noted that for many patients vascular disease can be prevented by abstaining from smoking, following a proper diet and getting regular exercise.
“The important thing is be aware of vascular disease,” Beers said. “Talk regularly with your physician about the health of your arteries as part of your routine health.”