“Vasculitis” is the term used for several disorders related to blood vessel inflammation. Vasculitis is classified as an autoimmune disease, because blood vessels become inflamed when your immune system attacks and damages your arteries and veins.
Vasculitis Symptoms and Diagnosis
Symptoms of vasculitis may vary depending on where in your body the condition develops. The most common symptoms include:
- Generalized pain and/or headaches
- Shortness of breath and/or coughing (if lungs are affected)
- Skin rashes
- Numbness or pain in the hands or feet.
Vasculitis can affect anyone, but it is not a common condition: only one to two new cases per 50,000 people are found each year, according to the Society for Vascular Surgery. There are three types of vasculitis: small-, medium- or large-vessel disease.
Research has shown that both genetic factors (inheritance) and environmental factors (such as bacterial, viral and fungal infections) may be causes of vasculitis.
Vasculitis is not always easy to diagnose, as symptoms could be a sign of many other conditions. If your doctor thinks you may have vasculitis, based on your symptoms and a physical exam, you will be referred to a vascular surgeon for further examination and testing.
Tests that can help determine whether you have vasculitis, and the type, include:
- Blood tests to check for inflammation and blood proteins that are common in vasculitis patients
- Biopsy to check tissue that shows signs of being affected by vasculitis
- Angiography, an X-ray of the blood vessels
- MRI or CT scans
Vasculitis can occur from time to time (episodic) or last a lifetime. Patients tend to have episodes, or flares, over several years at a time.
Vasculitis Treatment at BIDMC
The aim of treating vasculitis is to reduce inflammation by suppressing parts of the immune system. When vasculitis is more severe, treatment is also aimed at preventing damage to vital organs. Treatments include:
- Medications, such as glucocorticoids (steroids) or newer immunosuppressant drugs can be prescribed to help suppress parts of the immune system
- Plasmapheresis (blood filtration to remove specific proteins)
- Angioplasty, if vessels are blocked
- Bypass surgery, if an artery is severely blocked or narrowed