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Vascular Spasm: Causes & Symptoms

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  • 0:01 Vascular Spasm
  • 0:24 Causes
  • 1:25 Symptoms
  • 2:05 Treatment
  • 2:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Vascular spasms cause blood vessels to suddenly tighten; they can also cause intense bouts of pain. Watch this lesson to learn what causes a vascular spasm, what the symptoms are, and how this condition is treated.

Vascular Spasm

A vascular spasm is a sudden and brief tightening or constricting of a blood vessel. It may also be called variant angina or Prinzmetal's angina. The tightening reduces the amount of blood that can move through the vessel, sometimes even closing it completely and blocking blood from moving through. This affects the tissues that are downstream from the blood vessel and prevents oxygenated blood from feeding these tissues.

Causes

Vascular spasms can be caused by tobacco or drug use (especially cocaine), trauma, irritation to the blood vessels, exposure to cold weather, extreme emotional stress, or inflammation disorders affecting the blood vessels.

Coronary artery spasms in the vessels around the heart are more common in people with risk factors of heart disease, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, though they can happen to anyone. Smokers are also at a higher risk of developing vascular spasms. Vascular spasms may occur at any time and aren't necessarily triggered by physical exertion; they can happen to a person who is at rest. Finally, they may be caused by plaque accumulation in the vessels around the heart.

Spasms in the brain's blood vessels may occur following brain surgery to correct bleeding in the brain or following trauma or a hemorrhage. People who have undergone radiation therapy to treat cancer also may be at a higher risk of developing vascular spasms due to the potential damage radiation can cause to the blood vessels.

Symptoms

There aren't always symptoms of vascular spasms, especially if they are brief. However, the most common symptom of vascular spasms is pain. The affected area may also be pale in color, experience a feeling of cold, or be difficult to move or use, especially if it affects a limb.

When the spasm affects blood flow to the heart, it can disrupt the heart's rhythm and cause chest pains, pain on the left side of the chest, or feelings of tightness or constriction in the chest. If blood is blocked for too long, it can also cause a heart attack to occur. These symptoms most often occur at night or during the early morning hours.

When the spasms affect the brain, they can lead to a stroke.

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