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What Is Ischemia?


Updated September 15, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What Is Ischemia?
Answer: Ischemia is any condition that prevents blood from reaching organs and tissues of the body. Blood contains oxygen and many nutrients that are vital for proper function of tissues and organs. Without these components, these tissues will begin to die.

Ischemia can affect any organ or area of tissue in the body, including the heart, the brain, and the legs. Ischemia to these areas of the body could cause ischemic heart disease, dementia, and peripheral vascular disease, respectively.

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 affected areas of the body, including the heart, brain, and other organs.

What Does Ischemia Feel Like?

When ischemia first begins to develop, you may not experience any symptoms. 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 - this occurs when ischemia forms in blood vessels supplying the heart
  • Intermittent claudication, leg weakness, numbness or tingling of the legs, and cuts on the limbs do not easily heal - this occurs in cases where ischemia develops in vessels 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:

  • Getting your cholesterol checked regularly
  • Consuming a healthy diet
  • Moderate exercise
  • Taking your cholesterol-lowering medications consistently, if prescribed


Fauci AC, Kasper DL, Longo DL et al. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. 17th edition, 2008.

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