What Is Ischemia? Overview, Causes, and More

Medically Reviewed By Darragh O'Carroll, MD
Was this helpful?
444

Doctors use the term ischemia to describe a reduction in blood flow to a certain part of the body. It can affect any body part, including the heart, brain, muscle, and intestines. Ischemia can be acute, due to a sudden reduction in blood flow, or chronic, due to slowly decreasing blood flow. It requires medical attention because it can cause potentially life threatening complications.

This article explains what ischemia is. It also outlines common symptoms and causes of certain types of the condition.

What is ischemia?

a doctor is talking to a woman in a hospital hallway
Hinterhaus/Getty Images

Ischemia is any reduction in blood flow resulting in decreased oxygen and nutrient supplies to a tissue.

Ischemia may be reversible, in which case the affected tissue will recover with the restoration of blood flow, or irreversible, which can result in tissue death.

Where can it happen?

Ischemia can occur anywhere in the body. Heart attacks and strokes both result from ischemia.

The condition takes a different name depending on where in the body it occurs. For example:

When should I contact a doctor?

Because ischemia can lead to permanent injury, acute ischemia is always a medical emergency. 

Seek immediate medical care by calling 911 if you experience: 

During treatment

Seek prompt medical care if you are receiving treatment for ischemia but mild symptoms persist or if you start to develop:

What are the symptoms of ischemia?

Although pain is a common symptom, ischemia may occur without any symptoms. Generally, symptoms depend on the location of the ischemia.

Common symptoms of ischemia of the heart

Sometimes, cardiac ischemia does not cause any symptoms. This is called silent ischemia.

However, some people with cardiac ischemia may notice chest pain, or angina. This may feel like a tightness or squeezing pain.

Learn how to talk with a doctor about angina here.

People may also experience changes in their heart rhythm due to cardiac ischemia. This can include a fast heart rate, called ventricular tachycardia, or ventricular fibrillation, which is another type of arrhythmia.

People with these heart rhythm changes may also experience fainting.

Learn when to go to the emergency room for a fast heart rate here.

Sometimes, people refer to coronary heart disease (CHD) as ischemic heart disease. However, it is important to note that it is possible to experience ischemia without obstructive CHD.

Common symptoms of ischemia of the brain

Symptoms of ischemia of the brain include:

  • changes in heart rate
  • changes in blood pressure
  • faintness or fainting
  • sensory loss
  • difficulty talking
  • difficulty performing basic calculations
  • difficulty with coordination or balance
  • unresponsiveness to stimuli, including people and objects
  • visual disturbances, including double vision

Ischemia of the brain can also cause a stroke. Receiving prompt treatment can improve the outlook for a stroke, so it is important to be aware of the early symptoms of this condition.

Learn about the warning signs of a stroke here.

Common symptoms of mesenteric ischemia

Symptoms of mesenteric ischemia, which affects the intestines, include:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life threatening condition

In some cases, ischemia can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care by calling 911 if you or someone you are with have any of the following life threatening symptoms:

What causes ischemia?

Ischemia can have different causes depending on which part of the body it affects. For example:

  • Cardiac ischemia: Cardiac ischemia usually happens when the arteries have become narrowed due to a buildup of plaque. If the heart has to work harder than usual, such as due to high blood pressure, it can cause ischemia to the heart muscle. People with a history of heart attacks have a higher chance of developing cardiac ischemia.
  • Brain ischemia: Brain ischemia can happen because of shock, low blood pressure, or conditions that affect the autonomic nervous system, such as vasovagal syncope or postural tachycardia syndromes. Problems with the structure and function of the heart, including arrhythmias, can also cause brain ischemia. Thrombosis or embolism can also cause blockages that lead to focal brain ischemia.
  • Intestinal ischemia: About half of all cases of acute mesenteric ischemia happen because of an embolism. This can come from blockages in the heart due to arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation (AFib) or from conditions such as atherosclerosis. Sometimes, intestinal ischemia can happen because of other blockages in organs such as the spleen or kidney. Hernias, scar tissue, and low blood pressure can also contribute to intestinal ischemia.

What are the risk factors for ischemia?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing ischemia. However, it is worth noting that not all people with risk factors for ischemia will experience the condition.

Some risk factors for ischemia include:

How do doctors treat ischemia?

The treatment of ischemia begins with seeking regular medical care throughout your life. Receiving regular medical care allows a healthcare professional to provide early screening tests and promptly evaluate your symptoms and your risk of developing ischemia.

The goal of treating ischemia is to restore blood flow and prevent further damage. Surgery may be necessary to remove dead tissue or repair injured areas.

Once the initial event is under proper control, treatment will turn to the prevention of future ischemia.

Common treatments for acute or chronic ischemia

Treatments for ischemia will depend on which part of the body it is affecting.

Some common treatments to reduce ischemia and restore blood flow include:

  • medications to control pain and dilate blood vessels
  • medications to prevent ongoing clot formation
  • medications to reduce the heart’s workload
  • antibiotics
  • oxygen therapy
  • procedures to expand blood vessels
  • surgery or procedures to remove clots
  • surgery to bypass blocked blood vessels
  • thrombolytic drugs to dissolve clots

Learn how to find the right doctor for heart bypass surgery here.

What are the potential complications of ischemia?

Complications of untreated ischemia can be serious or even life threatening. You can help minimize your risk of experiencing serious complications by following the treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you.

The complications of ischemia will depend on where the condition is affecting the body, but they can include:

Is it possible to prevent ischemia?

You may be able to lower your risk of ischemia by:

  • controlling your blood sugar
  • eating a healthy diet
  • engaging in regular physical activity
  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • quitting smoking and other tobacco products
  • reducing your stress level
  • taking medications as recommended for heart disease, cholesterol, diabetes, or high blood pressure

Maintaining regular contact with a doctor can help lower your risk of ischemia and its complications.

Summary

Ischemia means that there is a reduced blood and oxygen supply to a certain part of the body. Locations in the body this condition can affect include the heart, intestines, brain, and limbs.

Ischemia can happen due to structural or functional problems in the heart, but it can have a variety of causes. It also has many triggers, including stress and trauma.

The treatment of ischemia will depend on where in the body it is affecting. It may involve surgery to widen the arteries or medications to thin the blood.

Was this helpful?
444
Medical Reviewer: Darragh O'Carroll, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Jan 24
View All Vascular Conditions Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.