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Atherosclerotic Vascular Disease

Atherosclerotic Vascular Disease affects nearly 10% of the population over the age of 65 years. It is noticed more commonly among men. Atherosclerotic vascular disease is probably one of the most common causes for death and disability.

Atherosclerotic peripheral vascular disease is a condition where there is a build-up of plaque in the arteries outside the heart. The thickened arteries constrict the flow of blood. This leads to inadequate supply of oxygen to all parts of the body. The mortality rate for this vascular disease is high and there is possibility of loss of limb too. Typically the limbs, kidneys and neck are affected. The symptoms of atherosclerotic peripheral vascular disease include numbness and tingling feeling in the limbs, sores that do not heal and dull, cramping pain in the hips or thighs. Claudication or pain in the lower extremity muscles is a common symptom. Smoking increases chances of peripheral atherosclerotic vascular disease. Other risk factors for atherosclerotic vascular disease are obesity, coronary heart disease and lack of exercise.


ABI (Ankle/Branchial Index) is a popular test that helps in detecting atherosclerotic vascular disease. Angiography is a special x-ray that helps in tracking artery blockages and narrowing. Ultrasonography and MRI aid the physician in non-invasive diagnosis of atherosclerotic vascular Disease. Simple tips to keep atherosclerotic vascular disease at bay:

  • Maintain healthy weight
  • Keep high blood pressure and high cholesterol under control
  • Control diabetes

Angioplasty is used to enlarge blocked arteries without surgery. But it is not a permanent solution. Medications such as Pentoxifylline (Trental) and Cilostazol (Pletal) are used to treat atherosclerotic vascular disease. They help in reducing blood viscosity. Surgery is resorted to when the arteries are blocked considerably. Bypass surgeryis a surgical procedure whereby the affected artery is bypassed so that blood flow is restored.

Peripheral Vascular Disease

Peripheral Vascular Disease(PVD) or Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a condition where the arteries supplying blood to the limbs and internal organs get blocked as a consequence of atherosclerosis. Fatty deposits get built up in the arteries and reduce the flow of blood to the organs being supplied by the peripheral arteries. Atherosclerosis is by far the leading cause for Peripheral Vascular Disease. Diabetes is a condition that puts a person at high risk for PVD. Smoking and obesity increases the risk for Peripheral Vascular Disease. Persons who are obese and suffer from hypertension are at higher risk for Peripheral Vascular Disease. A sedentary lifestyle without any exercise should be avoided.


Intermittent Claudication is noticed in patients suffering from Peripheral Vascular Disease. Symptoms associated with Peripheral Vascular Disease include numbness or tingling in the limbs, sores that do not heal and pain in the buttocks. A patient suffering from Peripheral Vascular Disease notices changes in skin color and temperature. There may be a dull and cramping pain in the calf, thigh and hip muscles. Ankle Brachial Index (ABI) involves a ratio of the blood pressure in your ankle to the pressure in your arm. Angiogram is a dye test that reveals any possible blockage in the arteries. Ultrasound Doppler Test uses imaging to check for plaque build-up in the arteries. Duplex ultrasound helps in accurate detection of the size of the artery stenosis and the extent of blockage.


Medication is prescribed to eliminate the narrowing of the arteries thereby improving the heart efficiency. Anti-platelet or anti-clotting agents such as cilostazol and pentoxifylline or aspirin and Clopidogrel help in improving blood supply to the extremities. Heparin and Warfarin are anticoagulant drugs that can prevent blood clotting. Blood viscosity is controlled to improve blood flow. Drugs to control hypertension and cholesterol may also be prescribed. Bypass surgery allows a new blood route that circumvents the blocked areas of the peripheral arteries. Endarterectomy is a surgical procedure whereby a surgeon cleans out plaque buildup inside the artery of the affected leg or arm. Cryoplasty, a newer form of Angioplasty uses liquid nitrous oxide to open a narrowed artery and destroy the plaque within. Regular supervised exercise can reduce symptoms of intermittent Claudication.


Gangrene

Gangrene refers to the death of the tissue in any particular area of the body caused by the loss of blood supply. Though gangrene can occur in any part of the body, it normally affects toes, fingers, feet and hands. Infections, vascular disease, diabetes, injury and weakened immunity are some of the causes of gangrene.


Types of gangrene

Dry gangrene: Dry gangrene involves lack of blood supply due to cell death and necrosis. This condition is not associated with infection and develops gradually over a period of time. Patients with diabetes, atherosclerosis and other blood vessel diseases are most likely to develop dry gangrene. Those suffering from injuries, burns, frostbite and any other arterial trauma are also prone to dry gangrene.


Symptoms of dry gangrene


  • Affected area feels numb and cold.
  • Does not show any signs of healing due to interrupted blood supply and necrosis (un programmed cell death).
  • Patients may or may not have pain.
  • Color changes gradually from red to brownish red and eventually becomes black.
  • Skin becomes dry, scaly, shriveled and finally falls off the body if not treated in time.
  • On very rare occasions, the onset of dry gangrene may be sudden which may be caused by an immediate loss of arterial blood supply. In such a case, the affected area turns pale or bluish and then starts withering away.

Wet gangrene: Bacterial infection, loss of blood supply due to swollen tissues and gas production are some of the causes of wet gangrene. Wet gangrene spreads very quickly and in no time turns into sepsis. It restricts the white blood cells from reaching affected area, allowing the bacteria to feed on the surrounding muscles. Hence wet gangrene is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment.

There are few variations to wet gangrene and one of them is gas gangrene. The bacterial organism called Clostridium perfringens causes gas gangrene. The bacteria present in the site releases toxins and produces gas bubbles in the dead tissues affecting not only the local site, but adjoining tissues and muscles. Though gangrene normally occurs on external parts of the body like hands, toes and legs, it can also attack internal organs like gallbladder, intestines and appendix. This condition is called internal gangrene. Internal organs may develop hernia, get strangulated and as a result do not receive sufficient blood supply causing gangrene.

Fournier gangrene is the gangrene that occurs in the male genital area due to an infection or urinary tract infection. Red skin, swelling, tenderness associated with pain are some of the symptoms of Fournier gangrene.

Necrotizing fasciitis is a type of wet gangrene that is caused by bacterial infection, affecting the deep layers of skin. It progresses rapidly and starts eating up the flesh in the body.

Symptoms of wet gangrene

  • The site at which gangrene has occurred becomes swollen and painful. The skin in that area gets discolored.
  • Pus, oozing of fluid and foul smell in the affected area.
  • Fever indicating sepsis.
  • If it is a gas gangrene, along with above mentioned symptoms, patient may experience increased heartbeat and vigorous breathing as toxins enter the blood stream. When the wound is pressed, there will be a slight crackling noise as there is a gas beneath the skin.

Causes of gangrene

The first and the primary cause of gangrene is complete loss or insufficient supply of blood to the tissue. When there is no blood supply, the required oxygen does not reach the cells allowing them to decay and die. Bacterial infections, trauma, damaged blood vessels, and blood vessel disease like atherosclerosis are some of the causes that restrict the blood supply leading to gangrene. Surgery wounds, frost bites, severe burns are typical breeding sites for bacteria causing infection and gangrene.

Diagnosing gangrene

Doctor will conduct a thorough physical examination and look for the symptoms like discoloration, pus, shrinking of skin, odor to determine the type of gangrene. If it is a wet gangrene, further tests like blood test, blood culture and tissue cultures are carried on to find out about the white blood cell count and the kind of bacteria causing the issue. This helps the doctors to decide on the right course of antibiotics. Imaging studies like X-ray, MRI and CT scan are done to determine the spread of gangrene.


Gangrene Treatment

Treatment approach varies depending upon the type of gangrene. However, whatever be the type of gangrene; it should be brought to the notice of the medical practitioner at the earliest to prevent it from spreading. In case of dry gangrene, firstly, doctor will remove the dead tissues from the affected area surgically. Next, he will try to correct the destroyed blood vessels to smoothen the blood flow. Patient will be administered antibiotics to curtail the spread and will also be given some anti blood clotting drugs.

Wet gangrene is a medical emergency and once diagnosed, treatment should start as quickly as possible. Debridement procedure is normally adopted to treat wet gangrene. Debridement refers to the removal of dead and decaying tissues from the affected site. Antibiotics are administered to control the infection and pain killers are given to relieve the patient from pain. In worst cases surgeon may have to amputate, where the affected limb will be separated from the body to prevent further deterioration. Gas gangrene is a deadly disease. Though it is treated in the same way as mentioned above, it necessitates swift action when compared to all other gangrenes. The infection can spread and enter the blood stream very quickly causing organ failures.


There is also an alternate therapy called hyperbaric oxygen therapy that is gaining momentum to treat gas gangrene. This process involves exposing the patient to 100% oxygen at inflated pressure for 90 to 120 minutes, three times a day for 2 days. Then the frequency will be brought down as per the patient's requirements. This therapy stimulates the cell growth, enhances the white blood cell count thereby regulating the infection and increasing the blood flow to areas affected by the arterial blocks.

Preventing gangrene

  • Seek prompt treatment for any kind of external wound, cut or injury before the site is attacked by infection.
  • Diabetics should keep their sugar levels under control as they are at higher risk. Those with vascular diseases and low immunity levels should be extremely cautious and vigilant about the signs of infection like pus, oozing, discoloration, swelling and pain. They should take good care of their fingers, toes and feet and go for frequent health checkups to rule out any adverse health condition.

Dry gangrene is easily treatable provided there is no infection associated with it. Chances of recurrence are higher in diabetes patients. The outlook for wet gangrene is poor and patients with severe infection and sepsis may also lose their life, if treatment is not initiated in time. It requires an aggressive treatment and patients with wet gangrene may end up with amputation.

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Collection of Pages - Last revised Date: September 23, 2019