A lot of specialties in medicine come as matched sets. If you're interested in the heart, become a cardiologist or a cardiac surgeon. If you're interested in the brain, become a neurologist or a neurosurgeon. In a few cases, one physician plays both roles. For example, if you'd like to practice both medicine and surgery, train as a vascular surgeon. There isn't a separate non-surgical specialty in treating blood vessels, so you'd enjoy a broader practice than most surgeons.
Vascular Surgery 101
Neurosurgeons and cardiac surgeons treat blood vessels in the brain and heart, but vascular surgeons are responsible for blood vessels in every other part of the body. They perform innocuous cosmetic procedures, such as fixing varicose veins, as well as conditions with more serious implications. Conditions affecting the blood vessels can cause strokes and heart attacks, or shut down a patient's kidneys. In the arms and legs, obstructions in the blood vessels can result in pain and swelling or even the loss of a limb. A vascular surgeon helps to prevent or treat these problems.
Diagnosis and Non-Surgical Therapy
Most conditions of the arteries and veins are caused by blood clots or plaque buildup, which can cause a whole range of problems. You can diagnose some conditions through symptoms such as high blood pressure or recurring pain in the chest or legs. In other cases, you must order MRIs or ultrasound tests to look for blockages or measure blood flow. Once you've identified the condition, you must decide how to treat it. For example, some medications can stop plaque from building up in the arteries or help dissolve existing deposits. Other drugs can dissolve blood clots or help prevent them from forming.
Other conditions require direct surgical intervention. For example, if a patient has an aneurysm -- a balloon-like weak spot in a vein or artery -- removing or reinforcing the weakened area can prevent a fatal rupture. You might also remove clots that haven't responded to medication, or a section of artery that's badly blocked. Instead of conventional open surgery, you might also insert miniature instruments into blood vessels to repair a faulty valve, insert a stent to strengthen a weak area, or open a clogged blood vessel through balloon angioplasty.
Vascular surgeons don't happen in a hurry. You must complete four years of undergraduate training and four years of medical school, then spend five more years in a general surgical residency, to enter the profession. Finally, after another two years in a specialized fellowship, you become a vascular surgeon and can take your board exams. As a vascular surgeon, you can control your income and lifestyle to some extent by your choice of practice. If you practice in a busy hospital, you're more likely to work long hours and see lots of emergency or trauma work. If you need more work-life balance, you can focus on private practice and low-intensity procedures instead.
- Surgical Care Associates: Vascular Surgeons and Vascular Disease
- Encyclopedia of Surgery: Vascular Surgery
- Pinehurst Surgical: When Should You See a Vascular Surgeon?
- Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis: General Surgery
- Association of American Medical Colleges: Spotlight on Specialties -- Vascular Surgery
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.