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What is ischemia?



Ischemia is a condition in which there is inadequate blood flow and oxygen to a specific part of the body. It can occur anywhere blood flows including the limbs, heart, brain, or intestines. It is usually caused by a narrowing or blockage of an artery. The condition will not improve on its own and requires appropriate medical attention and if it is left untreated it can cause tissue damage and loss of limbs.


What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of ischemia all depend upon how quickly the blood flow is interrupted and where it occurs. In the limbs, early symptoms of ischemia can include pain, burning, or cramping in the muscles with exercise that goes away with rest. If left untreated, this can progress over time to a reduction of blood flow to the affected area which will result in severe pain or tissue loss.

An attack of leg ischemia may cause severe pain, loss of pulses, coldness of the limb, paleness of the skin, and even leg weakness and loss of sensation. If the tissue of the limb has been affected, a non-healing sore or even gangrene may occur and the skin turns black.

If the heart is affected by ischemia then symptoms may cause angina (chest pain with exertion that goes away with rest) or even a heart attack.

If ischemia reaches the brain it can cause a stroke.

In the intestines, if the blockage of the arteries supplying the intestines happens, it can result in chronic ischemia, which may cause abdominal pain usually after eating. Intestinal ischemia may cause bowel gangrene causing a sudden onset of severe abdominal pain.


Risk factors for ischemia?

The risk factors include:

  • Plaque build-up in the arteries which is usually caused by smoking

  • Older age

  • High cholesterol

  • High blood pressure

  • Diabetes

  • Family history of cardiovascular disease

  • Sedentary lifestyle

  • Obesity.


How is ischemia diagnosed?

Diagnosis of ischemia all depends upon its location. Depending on the symptoms you may be sent to a non-invasive vascular laboratory to have an ankle brachial index test (ABI), which tests the blood pressures in the legs. You may be sent for a Duplex ultrasound imaging of the arteries or magnetic resonance arteriography (MRA) or computed tomography (CT). You may be sent for an arteriogram, which is an x-ray of the arteries while dye is injected into the blood vessels. Diagnosing a stroke will require a head CT scan or a brain MRI. If heart ischemia is suspected you might receive a stress test. In severe cases you may be sent for coronary angiography. Imaging of the vessels supplying the intestines is performed with ultrasound, CT, or MRA, sometimes followed by a arteriography for intestinal diagnosis.


This article is intended to inform and give insight but not treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a doctor. Always seek medical advice with any questions regarding a medical condition

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