Food, water, exercise, sleep: Your body needs many different things to survive. One of these happens every time you breathe. Each breath draws oxygen from your blood into your lungs. It then travels throughout your body in your blood vessels and arteries.
Some of these blood vessels are large, like highways. Others are small, like alleyways. But if any of these stop blood flow, you have a serious problem called ischemia. This means that part of your body isn't getting enough blood, so it's not getting enough oxygen either. It can occur in your brain, legs, and pretty much anywhere else in the body.
Ischemia may occur due to accumulation or blockage in your veins. How it feels and how it affects you depends on where the ischemia originated. Ischemia can also lead to serious life-threatening problems such as heart attack or stroke.
What Causes Ischemia ?
One of the main causes of ischemia is atherosclerosis. Plaques can build up in your arteries. Plaque is a hard, sticky substance composed mostly of oil. It develops slowly and this development can take years. That's why we don't even know where it is at first. But over time, it can harden and narrow your arteries. This slows your blood flow because your blood has less room to move. When there is a blockage in pipes, such as old plumbing in a home, the water drains slowly and can become clogged in an instant.
You may also experience ischemia due to a blood clot. The plaque itself is a problem. But sometimes, the blockage can open and form a clot. This causes a sudden and serious stop in your blood flow. A piece of a clot can sometimes break off and cause problems elsewhere in the body.
What Problems Does Ischemia Cause ?
Some atherosclerosis can be life-threatening, depending on where it occurs. E.g:
Heart: Ischemia in the heart vessels can lead to heart attack, irregular heartbeat and heart failure. It can also cause chest pain (angina) or sudden death. You may also hear these called ischemic heart disease, myocardial ischemia, or cardiac ischemia.
Brain: Ischemia in cerebral vessels can cause paralysis.
Legs: Doctors call this "critical limb ischemia." Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a serious condition that you can experience. This is a condition where there is a buildup of plaque in the arteries of your leg. It causes intense pain even at rest. If left untreated, you may lose your leg.
Intestines: This is also called mesenteric ischemia. It can cause death in your gut or part of your gut. It is likely to occur in both the small and large intestines.
Ischemia in blood vessels may not always give symptoms. Some people may have silent ischemia of the heart or brain. It can lead to a sudden heart attack or stroke. If you experience certain symptoms, these will vary depending on where you have ischemia. If you think these symptoms are also related to ischemia, seek medical attention immediately.
The ischemias that can occur in various parts of the body are given below.
Myocardial ischemia occurs when blood flow to your heart is reduced, preventing the heart muscle from getting enough oxygen. The decrease in blood flow is usually the result of partial or complete blockage of your heart's arteries (coronary arteries).
Myocardial ischemia, also known as cardiac ischemia, can reduce the heart's ability to pump blood. Sudden, severe blockage of one of the arteries of the heart can lead to a heart attack.
The primary treatment for myocardial ischemia is to improve blood flow to the heart muscle. Treatment options include medications, a procedure to open blocked arteries (angioplasty) or bypass surgery.
It is important to make heart-healthy lifestyle choices in the treatment and prevention of myocardial ischemia.
Some people with myocardial ischemia may not have any signs or symptoms (silent ischemia).
When these occur, the most common is chest pressure or pain, usually on the left side of the body (angina pectoris). Other signs and symptoms that may be more commonly experienced by women, the elderly, and those with diabetes include:
- Neck or jaw pain
- Pain in the shoulder or arm
- Fast heartbeats
- Shortness of breath when you are physically active
- Nausea and vomiting
- Excessive sweating
Causes of Myocardial Ischemia
Myocardial ischemia occurs when blood flow through one or more coronary arteries is reduced. Low blood flow reduces the amount of oxygen your heart muscle receives. Myocardial ischemia can develop slowly as arteries become clogged over time, or it can occur quickly when an artery is suddenly occluded.
Conditions that can cause myocardial ischemia include:
Coronary Artery Disease (atherosclerosis): Plaques, mostly cholesterol, build up on your artery walls and restrict blood flow. Atherosclerosis is the most common cause of myocardial ischemia.
Blood Clot: Plaques that develop in atherosclerosis can burst and cause a blood clot. The clot can occlude an artery and lead to sudden, severe myocardial ischemia. This can cause a heart attack. Rarely, a blood clot can travel to the coronary artery from elsewhere in the body.
Coronary Artery Spasm: Temporary tightening of the muscles in the artery wall can reduce or even prevent blood flow to part of the heart muscle. Coronary artery spasm is a rare cause of myocardial ischemia.
Chest pain associated with myocardial ischemia can be triggered by:
- Physical effort
- Emotional stress
- cold temperatures
- Cocaine use
- Eating a heavy or large meal
- Sexual intercourse
Tobacco: Smoking and prolonged exposure to passive smoke can damage the inner walls of arteries. Damage can cause cholesterol and other substances to build up and slow blood flow in the coronary arteries. Smoking causes spasm of the coronary arteries and can also increase the risk of blood clots.
Diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are linked to an increased risk of myocardial ischemia, heart attack, and other heart problems.
High Blood Pressure: Over time, high blood pressure can accelerate atherosclerosis, which can damage the coronary arteries.
High Blood Cholesterol Level: Cholesterol is an important part of the formations that can narrow your coronary arteries. High levels of "bad" (low-density lipoprotein or LDL) cholesterol in your blood can be due to an inherited condition or a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
High Blood Triglyceride Level: Triglycerides, another type of blood fat, can also contribute to atherosclerosis.
Obesity: Obesity is associated with diabetes, high blood pressure, and high blood cholesterol levels.
Lack of Physical Activity: Not getting enough exercise contributes to obesity and is linked to higher cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Regular aerobic exercise is associated with a lower risk of myocardial ischemia and heart attack, and people who exercise regularly have better heart health. Exercise also reduces blood pressure.
Ischemic stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks or narrows an artery to the brain. A blood clot usually forms in arteries that have been damaged by a buildup of plaques (atherosclerosis). It can occur in the carotid artery of the neck and other arteries.
- Severe and rapid headache, sometimes with dizziness or vomiting
- To faint
- Problems moving your body (weakness, numbness, or inability to move your face, arm, or leg to one side of your body)
- Speech impairment and difficulty understanding others
Ischemia in the legs
It occurs when a blood clot causes ischemia in the veins of the legs.
- Coldness and weakness in your legs
- Pain in your feet
- Severe pain in your legs, even at rest
- non-healing wounds
Masenteric (intestinal) ischemia
Mesenteric ischemia, also commonly referred to as intestinal or intestinal ischemia, has a very high mortality in the intestine and its mesentery if not treated appropriately in the acute setting.
If the ischemia is severe enough and does not heal quickly, a predictable sequence of events is usually observed:
- Necrosis of the intestinal wall
- Bacterial proliferation in the intestinal wall
- Gas passes from the mesenteric veins to the portal vein (pneumatosis portalis)
- Sepsis and/or intestinal perforation
- Severe abdominal pain
- Blood in stool
- Immediate feeling of defecation
Can I Prevent Ischemia From Occurring?
You can help reduce the risk of ischemia by making healthy lifestyle choices. These:
- Eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Exercise frequently
- Reducing your stress (try deep breathing, meditation or yoga)
- quit smoking
- Overcoming other health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol
It's also helpful to see your doctor for regular checkups. It can control problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. This can help you catch problems early, even if you don't have symptoms.