In the second part of the series on the circulatory system I am going to look at the outages and problems that can occur when you have 60,000 miles of network.
What causes network outages?
Unfortunately, much of what goes on with your blood vessels is internal and we tend to miss the early signs of problems, unless they pop to the surface as in the case of varicose veins or bruising. Our modern lifestyle has resulted in most of us reducing our activity levels to well below normal for a human body. Cars, computers, online shopping, school buses, remote controls are just some of the enablers of immobility.
Here are some of the problems that most of us are at risk of and the early signs that there is a problem. With the more serious issues such as thrombosis and aneurysms medical attention is needed immediately. Even if you do not suffer from these, knowing what the symptoms are means that you might be in a position to help a family member, friend of colleague should they suddenly experience pains in the abdomen or back.
As we get older our blood-vessels, as with any part of our body, begin to suffer from wear and tear. Varicose veins can appear at any time and one of the most common causes is during pregnancy when the circulatory system is put under pressure due to additional weight and the responsibility of supplying blood to the growing foetus.
The most common site for varicose veins is in the back of the calf. The veins in the legs are divided into two systems one with deep veins that run deep into the muscles and superficial veins that lie in the layer of fat close to the skin. It is the veins that you can see close to the surface that are likely to become varicose.
Veins have delicate valves to prevent the blood from moving backward in the blood-vessel. If there is a defective valve the blood can drain backwards and pool in the veins nearest the skin surface, which then become swollen and painful. Because the capillaries just under the skin also become damaged, blood is unable to enrich the skin immediately above the site and this can become thin and dry leading to ulceration or varicose eczema.
Another cause of blood pooling is the damage to perforating veins that connect the deep veins to the superficial ones. If the valves in these interconnecting blood-vessels are damaged, blood rushes from the deep veins and floods the veins closer to the surface.
Apart from the valve weakening in the vein there is also a problem with the strength of the wall of the blood-vessel. Collagen, which gives the elastic sheath of the vein its strength, can become depleted causing blood to pool in small pockets in the wall. This applies usually to the deep veins, which I will cover later, but if there is a general lack of collagen it could also apply to the superficial veins nearer the skin.
Who is at risk of varicose veins?
There are a number of contributing factors to the development of varicose veins. In the Western world around 30% of women will develop the condition, particularly if they have been pregnant. It used to be that men were at a lower risk of developing varicose veins but this is changing and in a recent study more men than women were suffering from this problem.
There is evidence that the problem is mainly confined to the Western world with only 2% found in Indian women and around 5% in other women in Africa. This may lead to a conclusion that diet and lack of exercise may be a very definite contributing factor.
Age certainly plays its part but people who remain active into their 70’s and 80’s seem to have much better blood-vessel health in general.
There is obviously an assumption that being overweight and inactive might contribute, but research is non-committal. Since the problem is more common in pregnancy there might be a correlation between additional weight, increased blood supply to the foetus and also hormonal changes that may have an effect on vein walls. This is backed up somewhat by the fact that with more pregnancies there tend to be more varicose veins.
In studies, there is some evidence to show that people who stand on their feet all day at work might be more likely to develop varicose veins, particularly those who stand still, allowing blood to pool in their legs.
An aneurysm is an abnormal swelling in an arterial wall. This can be caused by disease or by an internal injury and in some rare cases the result of a birth defect. The most common place for an aneurysm to appear is in the aorta, the main artery from the heart. The elderly can develop them further down in the abdominal aorta just below the kidneys.
An aneurysm can also develop in the brain and is called a cerebral or intracranial aneurysm. The bulge is similar to the one you would see in an inner tube or a thin balloon and they tend to form where arteries divide or branch off.
Who is at risk of an aneurysm?
There are rare incidences where a person is actually born with a small aneurysm, which then grows, causing problems in childhood and adolescence. It is far more common in older people where there are contributing factors associated with the development of the aneurysm such as arterial disease and wear and tear.
Smokers, and people suffering from high blood pressure, are also at risk and there is some indication that the risk might be hereditary.
Aneurysms can also form after trauma and surgery when internal damage may go undetected.
What are the symptoms of an aneurism?
If the aneurysm is in the lower part of the aorta, it may be several years before the condition becomes symptomatic. Different people will experience a variety of symptoms but they usually include a pulsating feeling in the abdomen, abdominal pain and back pain.
If the aortic aneurysm gets too large it can rupture, causing agony in the abdomen and the back and obviously leading to internal bleeding.
If the aneurysm is higher up in the aorta in the chest area other symptoms will be present including pain in the upper back, coughing and wheezing and difficulty swallowing.
The person suffering from this type of aneurysm may also exhibit symptoms of Horner’s syndrome, where one side of the face suffers from a drooping eyelid, constricted pupil and dry skin.
A brain aneurysm is usually accompanied by severe headaches and in some cases nausea and vomiting, stiff neck or neck pain, blurred vision or double vision, pain above and behind the eyes, dilated pupils, sensitivity to light and loss of feeling in some areas of the body.
A Thrombosis is a blood clot that forms in either a vein or artery, preventing the normal circulation of blood. This is often a result of hardened arteries, or atherosclerosis, when fatty deposits (plaque) has lined the blood-vessel narrowing and constricting blood flow. This can occur in various parts of the body and can be life threatening. The most common cause of strokes is a thrombosis in the arteries supplying the brain.
There has been a great deal of concern in recent years with the incidences of DVT or Deep Vein Thrombosis and increased air travel. The risk appears to be associated with passengers who sit for an extended period of time and air travel is not the only culprit as long journeys in cars, trains and coaches can also cause the problem as can sitting all day at a computer without a break every couple of hours.
The DVT usually forms in the calf muscles and you would experience an extreme pain in that area. This can happen days or even weeks after a trip so do not assume that you are not at risk and seek medical attention immediately.
Who is at risk?
There is still not a great deal of research into who is more susceptible to a DVT but there are indications that there are factors that increase the risk.
- Immobility for extended periods of time in any form of travel or even sitting constantly in the office or home.
- Recent leg surgery.
- Existing clotting problems.
- Varicose veins.
- Hormones, including during pregnancy.
- Heart problems
- Existing vascular problems such as high blood pressure.
How can you reduce the risk of developing a DVT?
If you are planning on taking a trip and you are in any of the risk categories then you should consult your doctor first before booking.
Once on your trip you should try and exercise once an hour for 10 minutes or so by rotating your ankles and exercising the calf muscles by walking around the plane or if that is not possible massaging upward from the ankles to the knees.
There are some products on the market that may help. In-flight stockings and socks have become more widely available. These stockings do not restrict circulation but increase blood flow to the lower legs.
Wear comfortable clothing and do not wear very tight trousers or even all in one corsets for travelling that may restrict blood flow. Changes in pressure at altitude can also increase the gas in your body causing it to expand making restrictive clothing not only uncomfortable but possibly dangerous too.
Avoid drinking alcohol as this can dehydrate your body which can thicken the blood, raise blood pressure and cause the smaller capillaries and blood vessels to close off putting increased stress on the main parts of the network. Make sure that you drink plenty of water before and during any extended travel.
An embolism occurs when particles dislodge from one area in the body and travel in the bloodstream to another point where they can form a blood clot leading to a thrombosis. The embolism could be made up of a variety of substances fatty debris, cholesterol, and debris from internal damage to bones etc. If an embolism lodges in a main artery, particularly the pulmonary artery, it can be fatal.
What are the causes of an embolism?
There are a number of risk factors involved, including: bed rest following a stroke, broken bone, or spinal cord injury allowing clots to form in the arms and the legs. Trauma and injury to the legs, recent surgery, obesity, heart disease (particular where there is an irregular heartbeat), burn damage, pregnancy, cancer and hormonal therapy.
What symptoms are associated with an embolism?
As with the other blood-vessel problems, you may not experience symptoms immediately. Certainly any pain in the calf muscles of the legs that is not associated with recent excessive activity should be taken seriously.
If the embolism reaches the pulmonary artery you will experience a sharp, stabbing pain in the chest which becomes worse if you take a deep breath. You will be short of breath and feel as though you are having an anxiety attack. You may start to cough and sweat and finally pass out.
Seek medical attention immediately and as this can be difficult to diagnose, knowing the symptoms and being able to describe them will be vital to speedy treatment.
So that is the bad news but understanding how your body works and also fails is key if problems are to picked up early. The good news is coming next with foods that contain the nutrients that are essential to the maintenance of a healthy network and then a look at the blood that flows through the network keeping you alive.
Part one of this series is here.
©SallyCronin Just Food For Health 2009