Vasoconstriction (muscles tightening your blood vessels to shrink the space inside) is something your body needs to do sometimes. For example, when you’re outside in the cold, vasoconstriction helps keep you warm. But too much vasoconstriction can raise your blood pressure or put someone with hyperthermia at risk of heat stroke.
What is vasoconstriction?
Vasoconstriction is what healthcare providers call it when the muscles around your blood vessels tighten to make the space inside smaller. This is the opposite of vasodilation, which opens your blood vessels to make the space inside bigger.
Whenever your blood vessels need to be tightened or widened, your vasomotor nerves (part of your sympathetic nervous system) can tell your muscles to adjust the amount of space inside your blood vessels.
Vasoconstriction can help or hurt your body, depending on the situation.
When you’re outside in the cold, peripheral vasoconstriction helps your body keep from losing too much heat by making less blood flow to your skin. Older people have less of an ability to respond to the cold in this way and protect themselves from hypothermia.
Sometimes, healthcare providers use medicines to create vasoconstriction to help people with certain medical conditions. These include:
Even some medicines you can buy without a prescription can cause vasoconstriction, such as nasal decongestants or cold medicines. People with high blood pressure could be more at risk for cardiovascular problems when vasoconstriction happens because it can be worse than in people without high blood pressure. This is why providers tell people with high blood pressure not to take nasal decongestants or cold medicines that cause vasoconstriction.
Too much vasoconstriction can cause problems, such as:
Causing too little blood to be delivered to fingers or toes, as in acrocyanosis or Raynaud’s phenomenon.
Raising the risk of heat stroke in someone with hyperthermia.
Putting people with coronary artery disease at a higher risk of a heart problem flaring up when they are under stress.
Increasing blood pressure.
Causing pulmonary (lung) hypertension.
Causing severe headaches (reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome).
What are the most common causes of vasoconstriction?
Different things can cause vasoconstriction. They include:
Prescription medicines or non-prescription medicines like decongestants. These have ingredients that cause blood vessels to narrow to provide relief.
Some medical conditions. For example, Raynaud’s phenomenon tightens blood vessels in your hands and feet.
Some psychological problems, such as stress. Your body releases substances that cause your blood vessels to tighten as if you were in danger.
Smoking. Chemicals in cigarettes make blood vessels tighten.
Being outside in the cold. Your body stays warmer when less blood is flowing to your skin.
Can anything I eat or drink cause vasoconstriction?
Yes. If you have high blood pressure, you should avoid:
Drinks with caffeine.
Meats that have been processed.
Other foods high in salt.
How is vasoconstriction treated?
once the cause of your vasoconstriction is gone, the vasoconstriction will be, too. For example, when you get warmed up, your body’s blood vessels will widen. Some medical problems, like Raynaud’s phenomenon, need to be treated with prescription medicine to widen blood vessels.
What can I do at home to treat vasoconstriction?
At home, you can:
Bring down your stress level.
Exercise (and do a warm-up for a few minutes first).
How can vasoconstriction be prevented?
You can’t prevent all vasoconstriction of blood vessels. And you wouldn’t want to when you’re cold. But you can protect yourself from too much vasoconstriction in these ways:
Control your stress.
Limit how much caffeine you drink.
Get your body moving so your blood vessels widen.
When should vasoconstriction be treated by a doctor or healthcare provider?
You should seek medical help when you have a bothersome or serious problem, such as:
High blood pressure.
How does vasoconstriction increase blood pressure?
When blood vessels become narrow, it takes more pressure for the blood to travel through the blood vessels.
Where does vasoconstriction occur?
It occurs in your blood vessels throughout your body.
Vasoconstriction can be helpful or harmful to your body. When you’re out in the cold, vasoconstriction helps keep you warm. But there are times when vasoconstriction — especially too much of it — is harmful. You can protect yourself against too much vasoconstriction by limiting how much caffeine you drink and keeping stress under control.