Our blood vessels have the ability to become narrow or dilate depending on a number of factors that affect our bodies. For the most part, dilation occurs when our bodies detect a need for an increased blood supply. In contrast, blood vessels constrict to redirect more blood flow to areas of the body. For example, while exercising, the blood vessels that supply muscles and the lungs dilate, but those that are important for digestion constrict. Vasoconstriction prevents excessive blood loss from wounds or injuries, and helps the body to retain heat in cold environments. These are all situations of normal vasoconstriction.
However, sustained vasoconstriction can be detrimental, and can cause mild to severe complications. In this article, the most common causes of pathologic vasoconstriction will be discussed as well as what can be done to relieve it.
What is Pathologic Vasoconstriction?
It’s important to distinguish between normal blood vessel narrowing and problematic constriction. In general, vasoconstriction is a normal bodily response to certain external factors and internal needs. Therefore, just because your blood vessels constrict, it doesn’t always meant that treatment is necessary.
In most normal scenarios, the muscles within the walls of blood vessels relax the constriction when the causative factor is removed. A good example of this is what occurs when the body is exposed to cold temperatures. Such environments cause the blood vessels in our skin to constrict, preventing heat loss as blood flows near the skin’s surface. This is why some people look pale when exposed to the cold. Once they move to a warmer location, the vasoconstriction stops.
Pathologic vasoconstriction, however, may be a sign of an underlying health condition. This type of constriction is sustained, and often requires medical intervention. The most common form is hypertension, a condition characterized by consistently abnormal high blood pressure.. Hypertension involves vasoconstriction of the arteries, blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart and to the organs. Another form of of pathologic vasoconstriction is called Raynaud’s phenomenon. In this condition, the blood vessels of the fingers and toes constrict in response to cold environments to the point of causing skin color changes, numbness, or pain.
When blood vessels remained constricted, this creates resistance to blood flow. As a result, it becomes challenging for nutrient-rich blood and oxygen to reach the tissues of your body. Because of this, pathologic vasoconstriction can cause a variety of health complications in the future if not properly managed.
What are the Symptoms of Vasoconstriction?
Many individuals who have pathologic vasoconstriction experience no symptoms. It is only discovered during a routine doctor visit. Others, however, may feel symptoms that indicate a problem. If you notice the following tell-tale signs, seek medical attention. Addressing them promptly can prevent worsening symptoms, or a serious complication.
- Headaches, especially upon waking in the morning
- Shortness of breath
- Blurry vision
- Ringing in the ears
- Generalized weakness
If you’ve engaged in any activities, or exposed yourself to substances or environments that trigger vasoconstriction, keep in mind that this may be a normal body response. However, normal episodes are brief and self-resolve.
If any of the above symptoms occur intermittently for several days or weeks, call a doctor. If they are constant, or multiple symptoms are present, seek emergency medical attention.
The Dangers of Pathologic Vasoconstriction
So, your blood vessels are a little tighter – so what? Aside from the obvious fact that vasoconstriction prevents blood from making its way to the necessary parts of your body, it can also be a predisposing factor for a variety of health problems.
As blood travels though our blood vessels, it not only carries nutrients and oxygen, but also cellular waste and byproducts. Any dietary fat that is not used by the body can accumulate along the walls of blood vessels. Over time, this fat can form atherosclerotic plaques, and further narrow the space within blood vessels. Cigarette smoking, high fat diets, and genetic factors increase the risk of plaque formation. Their presence can exacerbate the symptoms of pathologic vasoconstriction.
As the heart beats to push blood through these narrowed vessels, the increased pressure and resistance can dislodge a plaque, allowing it to travel through the bloodstream. This is what is known as an embolus. For a while, the embolus might freely flow through the bloodstream as it’s carried by blood. It becomes dangerous, however, as it approaches the smaller blood vessels further away from the heart.
As the embolus travels through the bloodstream, it can enter areas where vessels are too narrow to accommodate its size. Thus, the embolus becomes lodged, blocking the passage of blood into nearby tissues. Without a blood supply, the tissues die. This is called an infarction.
When infarction occurs in the brain, it is known as an ischemic stroke. The areas of the brain that loose blood supply may be permanently damaged. If the blood vessels that supply the heart become obstructed, it causes a myocardial infarction. After a “heart attack,” the heart muscle is damaged and may not function properly. Because both of these conditions are life threatening and life altering, it’s important to medically manage vasoconstriction to prevent either from occurring.
Another potential threat to the brain is reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome. This phenomenon is a sudden, severe obstruction of blood flow to parts of the brain due to pronounced vasoconstriction. The most noteworthy symptom is what doctors call a ‘thunderclap’ headache, a sudden, intense head pain. It is most commonly triggered by certain prescription or over-the-counter medications.
While RCVS can be reversed and rarely cause lifelong complications, it can be a predisposition for stroke. Taking these symptoms as a warning sign can help prevent complications in the future.
How to Relieve Vasoconstriction
Pathologic vasoconstriction can be reduced in two ways: naturally or with medication. The former is often the most ideal method of treatment, and may be used in combination with medication in severe cases.
The easiest, simplest, and fastest way to dilate your blood vessels is with regular exercise. Cardio exercises, those that require intensive breathing such as running, swimming, or biking, are known to be the most effective. Engaging daily in at least 30 minutes of cardio workouts can help normalize blood vessel tone, and prevent future pathological vasoconstriction.
Dietary changes can also improve vasoconstriction. Avoiding foods that contain caffeine can greatly help reduce symptoms. For those who smoke, minimizing the number of cigarettes per day, or quitting can substantially improve the health of blood vessels.
What many people don’t realize is that your mindset can negatively effect your blood vessels. Studies have shown that too much stress can cause vasoconstriction. This is why you may get an occasional headache when you’re under too much pressure. Practicing stress management techniques can help reduce the frequency of stress-induced vasoconstriction.
Another simple yet effective way of relieving vasoconstriction is with massage. Specifically, Swedish massage techniques involve the rolling and kneading of the skin and muscles in order to relieve pain and reduce tension. The physical stimulation of the skin and its underlying surfaces during a massage has been shown to improve blood circulation. It can also reduce mental stress which indirectly reduces vasoconstriction.
There are a wide variety of medications can be prescribed to manage hypertension and atherosclerosis. Because each individual’s needs are different, what works for one person might not work for another. Be sure to consult your doctor for further information on vasodilator medications to determine which is the safest and most effective for your specific needs.
Vasoconstriction can be brief and normal, or a problem that can cause a variety of future medical complications. It is important to understand how it affects your body, and the potential risks.
To determine if your type of vasoconstriction can be managed with home remedies, consult your doctor. Simple things such as exercise and a proper diet can bring about a world’s worth of positive change.
However, if you’ve been experiencing vasoconstriction that gives you symptoms, and you suspect that it is caused by an underlying medical condition, seek the advice of your physician.