What Is Ischemia and How Do You Prevent It?

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Ischemia is a condition in which organs, such as the heart or the brain, are not receiving enough oxygen and nutrients to function normally. Ischemia usually occurs because of an injury or disease - such as atherosclerosis - that reduces blood supply to the affected organ.

What Does Cholesterol Have to Do With Ischemia?

Surprisingly, cholesterol can play an important role in producing ischemia. When the inner walls of arteries become inflamed, cholesterol and other fats can build up, causing the formation of a thick, waxy plaque through a process called atherosclerosis.

As the atherosclerotic plaque thickens, it begins to reduce -- or even obstruct -- blood flow to organs and tissues affected by the restriction of blood flow, causing the affected areas not to receive the needed nutrients to perform properly.

What Does Ischemia Feel Like?

When ischemia first begins to develop, you may not experience any symptoms at all. However, as time progresses, the symptoms you may experience will depend on the area where ischemia is located. Symptoms could include:

  • Dizziness, fainting, and dementia - these symptoms mainly occur when ischemia develops in blood vessels supplying the brain.
  • Chest pain, fatigue after slight exertion, and shortness of breath can occur when ischemia forms in blood vessels supplying the heart. In severe cases, this can lead to a heart attack.
  • Intermittent claudication, leg weakness, numbness or tingling of the legs or arms, and cuts on the limbs do not easily heal usually occurs in cases where ischemia develops in arteries supplying the limbs.

    How Can I Prevent Ischemia from Occurring?

    Since many other factors, such as low blood pressure, injury, and blood clots, can also produce ischemia, there is no way to totally prevent it. However, by keeping your cholesterol levels within the normal range, you can lower your risk of developing ischemia.

    There are many things you can do to help keep your cholesterol levels within a normal range, including:

    • Get your cholesterol checked regularly. Current guidelines recommend that you get your cholesterol checked at least once every five years, if you are over 20 years of age. This is a test that can be performed in your healthcare provider's office and only requires a small amount of blood.
    • If you are smoking – stop. Smoking can increase LDL, but also irritate the lining of your vessels that could lead to inflammation.
    • Consume a healthy diet. Restricting your trans fat intake and refined sugar – and increasing the amount of legumes, veggies, fruit, and whole grains - can help prevent many health issues, including ischemia related to elevated lipid levels.
    • Increase your physical activity. Getting moderate exercise can also help keep your lipid levels healthy.
    • Taking your cholesterol-lowering medications regularly,  if you have been prescribed them by your healthcare provider.

    If you have concerns about ischemia or are experiencing any of the above symptoms associated with ischemia, you should consult with your healthcare provider He or she will perform the necessary tests needed to determine if you have ischemia or if your symptoms are due to another health condition.


    Kasper DL, Fauci AC, Longo DL et al. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. 19th edition, 2015

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