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Vasculitis inflammation and heart attacks

February 10, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Your immune system can attack any part of your body by mistake. If it's targeting your arteries, veins or capillaries, the condition is called vasculitis. Doctors say it can be controlled, but you have to know what you're dealing with.

El Sereno resident Denise Barajas, 40, is getting ready to give birth to her fifth child. But when she was pregnant with her youngest, Marley, something felt terribly wrong.

"When this pressure was on my chest, I was just looking at my kids because they were all there and I was just thinking like oh my god, am I ever going to come back home?" said Denise.

A heart attack at age 38? Denise didn't have any of the classic signs of heart disease.

"When they took her to get an angiogram, they saw a blocked vessel. But when you see someone very young you have to kind of scratch your head and go 'hmmmm.'" said Dr. Juan Silva, White Memorial Medical Center.

It turns out it wasn't plaque causing the blockage, it was inflammation. Denise suffers from a rare condition called vasculitis. The damaged artery was thick, narrowed and scarred.

Dr. Silva says vasculitis is like rheumatoid arthritis, but instead of your own body attacking the joints, it attacks your blood vessels.

"Usually when you develop vasculitis, it's an acute onset and it leads to organ damage," said Silva.

Denise underwent an angioplasty where doctors opened up her blockage and inserted a stent.

Vasculitis can be controlled with steroids and anti-inflammatory medication, but Silva says patients also need to avoid smoking and certain foods.

"Anything that causes inflammation, whether it's caffeine or even chocolate or unhealthy eating, will cause an inflammation. So the best thing to do is really prevention," said Silva.

Denise is expecting a son in July. Doctors warned her that another pregnancy could strain her heart, but she feels strong and she's been very careful about what she eats.

"It just felt like this was a blessing, another blessing," said Denise. "We decided to go ahead with the pregnancy."

Signs or symptoms of vasculitis may include joint pain or shortness of breath.

Doctors say treatment often works well if it's started early. In some cases, vasculitis may go into remission. "Remission" means the condition isn't active, but it can return to flare up at any time.