Definition & Overview

A steady supply of oxygen is vital to the normal functions and operations of bodily tissues and organs. The blood carries oxygen to different organs of the body through a vast network of blood vessels. The arteries deliver oxygen from the heart to the organs, which are then carried back to the heart through the veins and smaller links called capillaries.

In a healthy person, the flow of blood is smooth and unhampered, thus leading to a normal operation of the organs. However, when vessels are inflamed, blood flow is restricted and negatively affects the overall operation of the organ. This condition is called vasculitis.

Inflammation causes changes in the structure of the inner walls of the blood vessels such as narrowing, thickening, bulging and even scarring that eventually weakens the vessels. In severe cases, this may result in a total blockage of the arteries. When this happens, surgery will be required to remove and clear the blockage.

It’s imperative that the condition is diagnosed and treated as early as possible. If this condition goes unchecked or untreated, it may ultimately end up in organ failure, which can be fatal.

There are different types of vasculitis, such as:

  • Behcet’s disease
  • Buerger’s disease
  • Central Nervous System Vasculitis
  • Churg-Strauss syndrome
  • Cryoglobulinemia
  • Giant cell arteritis
  • Henoch-Schonlein purpura
  • Microscopic polyangiitis
  • Polyarteritis nodosa
  • Polymyalgia rheumatic
  • Rheumatoid vasculitis
  • Takayasu’s arteritis
  • Wegener’s granulomatosis

Cause of Condition

The exact cause of vasculitis is unknown. However, doctors believe that allergic reactions play a role. Other factors that could also result in the condition are the genetic makeup of the individual, or a malfunction or anomaly of the immune system. Certain drugs or cancer cells could cause a malfunctioning immune system, as well as hepatitis and other diseases.

While the exact cause of vasculitis is yet to be identified, advances in medical technology have enabled doctors to improve the methods of diagnosing and treating the condition.

Key Symptoms

The different types of vasculitis will display different symptoms. In some cases, providing an accurate diagnosis of vasculitis can be difficult because the symptoms are similar to other diseases. The most common symptoms are:

Even though these symptoms can be easily mistaken for other medical conditions, diagnostic examinations will reveal that the primary cause of the symptoms is the lack of oxygen in a certain organ. This will then indicate that the arteries supplying blood to a specific organ could be blocked. The doctor will then perform other diagnostic examinations to identify to blocked arteries and the location of the blockage.

In most cases, the symptoms exhibited by the individual with vasculitis are relative to the organ affected and the extent of the damage done. The following is a list of organs that can be possibly affected and their corresponding symptoms.

  • Joints- obvious accompanying sensations are pain and numbness, which eventually may result in arthritis.

  • Skin- itchiness, various coloured spots either appearing individually or in many clusters.

  • Lungs- shortness of breath and pneumonia-like symptoms.

  • Eyes - itchy and burning sensation, red eyes and blurring of vision

  • Ears, nose, throat and sinuses- chronic infections, ulcers, and hearing loss

  • Brain- headaches, impaired thinking, muscle weakness and even paralysis

  • Nerves - tingling sensation, weakening of the muscles in different parts of the body, loss of power and strength of both hands and feet as well as severe pain

The presence of the key symptoms and a complete medical history of the patient will also help in providing an accurate diagnosis of the disease. For instance, if the patient displays the above symptoms and has a history of autoimmune diseases, scleroderma, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or chronic hepatitis B or C, it would be an indication of vasculitis. This is the reason why you should provide the doctor with a detailed list of diseases you have been treated for. If not, there is a chance that the doctor may find it more difficult to diagnose your condition.

Who to See & Types of Treatment Available

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms, it’s best to consult your family doctor, or a doctor who is already familiar with your medical history. If you’re consulting a new doctor, he or she will likely perform a physical examination and obtain a detailed medical history. If the doctor suspects the presence of vasculitis, you will likely need to be referred to a specialist in the condition called a rheumatologist.

The specialist will then analyze the results of the examinations provided by your doctor and may advise you to undergo several more tests to confirm the presence of the disease and identify the organs affected.

Once vasculitis is confirmed, and the specialist has identified the affected organs, he or she will decide on the best form of treatment. It’s important to note that the available treatment options are designed to treat the inflammation and reduce the symptoms to prevent further damage to tissues and organs. By reducing the symptoms, patients are often able to live a normal life. The management of the different types of vasculitis is an evolving field in medicine, which means that it is possible for current treatment options to improve significantly.

Vasculitis can be treated with medications, but severe cases will require surgery. Medications used in the treatment of the condition will usually include corticosteroid or steroids. In some cases, a low dosage of chemotherapy drugs will be required. Chemotherapy drugs serve as immunosuppressants to counteract the effects of super active immune system.

The nature of the treatment will also depend on the area of the organ affected and the extent of the damage done. For instance, if only the skin is affected, a simple form of treatment will be sufficient. However, if the brain, kidney, or heart is affected, treatment will likely be more complex as the risk of kidney failure, heart attack, or stroke greatly increases.

These cases will require medications for the specific organ, but may also require surgery if the damage to the organ is severe but can still be corrected.

References:

  • Stone JH. Immune complex-mediated small vessel vasculitis. In: Firestein GS, Budd RC, Gabriel SE, et al, eds. Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 91.
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