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Whittington Health NHSUCL

Heart and blood vessels


Anatomical model of the heart

Key fact:
Having good blood pressure reduces your risk of having a heart attack or stroke - even five units can make a difference. And people with chest pain who stop smoking may find they can walk two to three times as far before it hurts.

A healthy heart pumps blood through your blood vessels to every part of your body. This ensures that the blood reaches all your essential organs as well as the tips of your fingers and toes, and your genitals.

Why do problems with blood vessels happen in diabetes?

Problems with blood vessels in diabetes can be due to any one, or a combination, of these factors:

  • Persistently high blood glucose levels: glucose can bind to certain proteins in the blood vessels and cause damage.
  • High cholesterol levels: this can lead to narrowing of vessels and clots in the vessels.
  • High blood pressure: this puts added pressure on the vessels and makes them more prone to damage.

Symptoms requiring urgent action

If you have any of these symptoms, call an ambulance by dialling 999:
  • new or worsening chest tightness that doesn't stop when you rest and lasts for more than 10 minutes
  • symptoms that suggest a stroke - face fallen on one side, unable to raise both arms and keep them up or slurred speech.

What are the most common problems?

  • High blood pressure. When blood vessels are damaged or coated in cholesterol, they tend to become stiffer, and this can lead to high blood pressure.
  • Calf pain. Damage to the blood vessels in the legs can restrict the amount of oxygen that gets to the leg muscles. This can cause calf pain, particularly when walking up hills.
  • Angina. Narrow vessels around the heart restrict the amount of oxygen which can get to the heart muscle. This can cause a pressure sensation over the chest, particularly during activity.
  • Heart attack. If a large blood vessel that leads to the heart becomes completely blocked, this can cause a heart attack. Typical symptoms of a heart attack include crushing chest tightness and feeling sick, sweaty and out of breath.
  • Stroke. If a large blood vessel that leads to the brain becomes blocked, this can cause a stroke. Typical symptoms of a stroke include weakness of the muscles down one side of the body, problems with speech, not being able to understand other people or see clearly, vomiting and feeling unsteady.

Will I develop problems with my blood vessels or heart?

Problems with the heart and vessels are the main cause of death for people with diabetes, as well as people without diabetes.

People with diabetes are up to four to five times more likely to have a problem with their heart or vessels than people without diabetes.

You can reduce your risk by:

  • adopting a healthy lifestyle
  • maintaining a good blood pressure, ideally below 130/80
  • maintaining a good blood glucose level with a target HbA1c between 48 to 58 mmol/mol (6.5% - 7.5%) as advised by your diabetes team.

See also above: Prevention | Checks & tests | Complications | Treatment | Links