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What Causes Ischemia?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Ischemia is a condition in which enough oxygen is not delivered by the blood to a major organ, and most often affects the heart or the brain. It occurs when the flow of blood is blocked or when the blood flowing to the organ has an extremely low oxygen content. All of the body's tissues need oxygen to function, so ischemia can result in significant damage or even the shutdown of an organ. Among the causes of ischemia are sickle cell anemia, ventricular tachycardia, the compression of blood vessels, and blood clots. Extremely low blood pressure, congenital heart defects, and the buildup of plaque in the arteries also can cause this condition.

Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle cell anemia can cause this condition because irregularly shaped or sickle-shaped blood cells can clot more easily, blocking the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart, lungs, or brain. In rare cases, a clot can block the passage of oxygen to other organs, such as the liver, creating significant damage. Most people who have sickle cell anemia take anti-clotting medications to prevent ischemia.

Ventricular Tachycardia

Ventricular tachycardia is a series of sudden irregular heartbeats that can cause the heart to function incorrectly or, in the most severe cases, to stop completely. The resulting complications can include ischemia because irregular heart function might also inhibit oxygen flow. In cardiac death as a result of ventricular tachycardia, the heart stops completely, depriving the entire body of oxygen. Although a person can be revived with the use of a defibrillator, lengthy oxygen deprivation can cause damage to major organs.

Compressed Blood Vessels

Growths within the body can cause blood vessels to become compressed. Tumors can press on major arteries, preventing the oxygen-rich blood from flowing freely and resulting in ischemia. Where other factors do not exist, ischemic episodes might indicate the presence of either cancer or large, benign tumors.

Blood Clots

Blood clots can be caused by a high platelet count or by surgical procedures, or they can occur in people who are taking an excess of blood clotting agents. In addition, blood clots can form in the legs of people who are inactive for any reason. In very rare cases, blood clots can form in the legs during long airplane flights, causing almost immediate ischemia. Blood clots are often too small to block veins and arteries, but occasionally, a large clot can block blood flow to a major organ, causing great damage.

Low Blood Pressure

A person who is suffering a heart attack usually exhibits extremely low blood pressure, which indicates that the body tissues aren't receiving enough oxyen. Untreated and undiagnosed heart attacks can slow blood flow enough that clots are formed, creating ischemic conditions. People who have had repeated heart attacks may be at greater risk for this condition.

Congenital Heart Defects

Someone who has a congenital heart defect is also at increased risk for ischemia because of clotting, both before and after reparative surgery. Some people who have congenital heart defects are at immediate risk for ischemia at birth. This might be caused by the arteries that are not formed or connected correctly or because one or more arteries are missing.

Buildup of Plaque in the Arteries

Atherosclerosis is the narrowing of arteries caused by the buildup of plaque. This is frequently seen in older people, and it usually can be corrected. This narrowing isn't always detected, however, and ischemia might first present when an artery becomes so completely blocked that blood cannot get to the brain or lungs. Narrow passageways also make it easier for blood to clot and completely block the arteries.

Possible Treatments

Certain procedures and treatments are used to prevent or correct ischemia. People who are prone to heart attacks or blood clots usually are given appropriate medications to reduce risk of ischemia. Plaque buildup can often be controlled with medication and a diet that reduces cholesterol. Episodes of ventricular tachycardia may be treated with either rhythm-controlling medication or an implanted pacemaker or defibrillator. Surgical correction of congenital defects can create normal blood flow patterns, and any tumors that inhibit blood flow are removed whenever possible.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon302315 — On Nov 08, 2012

Is it possible for ischemia to be cause by hypothermia?

By dehopley — On Jan 12, 2011

Is there any literature/studies/information on the relationship between ischemia and dioxin, specifically as it relates to ischemic colitis?

By alex94 — On Jul 26, 2010

@cainan3: When a heart attack occurs, there will always be some type of damage to the heart. If a large amount of muscle dies, the ability for the heart to pump blood is diminished. That can lead to heart failure.

There is also something called ventricular fibrillation (also known as V. Fib) that can cause severe complications. Ventricular fibrillation happens when the normal electrical activation of the heart muscle is replaced with chaotic electrical activity. That causes the heart to stop beating and pumping blood.

By GrumpyGuppy — On Jul 26, 2010

@cainan3: To answer your question, yes, heart attacks cause damage. The degree of the damage is usually permanent because a part of the muscle actually dies from the lack of oxygen and blood to that area.

There can be other tissue that is not dead but is still not functioning properly. There are tests that can look at the heart after you have had a heart attack which can determine the amount of damage done. Some of the tests include echocardiograms and MRI’s.

By cainan3 — On Jun 27, 2008

Does a heart attack always result in damage to the heart?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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