Arterial Disease Types: Risk Factors, Causes, and Symptoms

The vascular system is an intricate web of vessels that move blood to and from the heart and lungs. Arteries send oxygen-rich blood out to different parts of the body, while veins bring oxygen-depleted blood and waste products back to your heart to be replenished.

The largest artery in your body is the aorta, which stems from the heart’s left ventricle and branches out into smaller arteries throughout the body.

Arterial diseases affect the arteries of your body. When they develop, oxygenated blood doesn’t reach its destination.

Arterial diseases can impact different parts of the body and cause a lot of problems. The tissues involved—e.g., toes versus kidneys—determine the symptoms and severity of the problem.

a woman clutching her chest in pain

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Arterial Anatomy Function and Risk Factors

Arteries carry blood filled with oxygen and other nutrients from the heart to other parts of the body. The only exception to this is the pulmonary artery, which carries blood that has been depleted of oxygen from the heart to the lungs.

In the lungs, new oxygen is transferred into the blood, and the pulmonary veins will bring the oxygen-rich blood back to the heart, where it will be pumped out to the body.

Reaching every corner of the body, arteries deliver vital oxygen and nutrients to the entire body. Without this system, tissues would die. The arteries also work with the nervous system to dilate or contract, changing the pressure in the vessels to meet your body’s needs.

Some of the major arteries in the body include:

  • Pulmonary artery: Brings oxygen-depleted blood from the heart to the lungs
  • Coronary arteries: Deliver oxygen-rich blood from the aorta to the heart muscle
  • Carotid arteries: Deliver oxygen-rich blood to the brain
  • Aorta: Carries oxygen-rich blood to the entire body
  • Femoral artery: Carries oxygen-rich blood to the groin and legs
  • Hepatic artery: Supplies the liver with oxygen-rich blood
  • Renal artery: Supplies the kidneys with oxygen-rich blood

A number of factors can lead to problems with how your arteries work, compromising the amount of oxygenated blood that reaches your organs and tissues. Age, diet and lifestyle, and genetics all play a role in your risk of developing an arterial disease.

Types of Arterial Diseases

There are several categories of arterial disease, including:

  • Aneurysms: A bulge in the wall of the artery
  • Atherosclerosis: When fats and minerals—called plaque—build up on the inside of the vessels causing hardening, narrowing, and even blockages
  • Clots: A collection of blood cells or other materials than can create blockages in vessels
  • Vasculitis: Inflammation of the vessel
  • Stenosis: The narrowing of an artery, restricting blood flow
  • Genetic or congenital disorders: Problems with the formation or function of your vessels which is caused by genetics or present from birth

Aneurysms

Aneurysms are bulging and weakening areas of the wall of an artery. They can develop for a long time without symptoms. However, they can cause severe problems if an aneurysm grows large and bursts, resulting in dangerous bleeding or even death. When this happens, it’s a medical emergency.

Aneurysms can happen in different locations. The most common ones include:

  • Cerebral aneurysm: Affects arteries in the brain, causing a stroke
  • Aortic aneurysm: Occurs in the portion of the aorta that carries blood away from the heart
  • Popliteal artery aneurysm: Occurs in the artery behind the knee
  • Mesenteric artery aneurysm: Occurs in the artery that supplies blood to the intestine
  • Splenic artery aneurysm: Occurs in an artery of the spleen

The cause of aneurysms is sometimes unclear. However, certain factors can increase the risk of aneurysms, including:

Symptoms of an aneurysm vary depending on which part of your body is affected, but may include:

  • Sudden sharp pain or headache
  • A throbbing sensation in the abdomen
  • A feeling of abdominal fullness
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Swelling in the face, arms, or neck
  • Dizziness

Doctors can generally stop aneurysms from bursting if they find and treat them early. Often aneurysms are found by chance during imaging tests done for other reasons. Medicines and surgery are the two main treatments for aneurysms.

Peripheral Arterial Disease 

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) refers to a number of conditions that affect arteries that carry blood out to areas farther away from the heart, most commonly in the lower extremities, like the feet and legs. It is primarily caused by the buildup of plaque in the arteries.

However, PAD can also impact other vessels, causing conditions like renal artery disease or intestinal ischemic syndrome.

Symptoms of PAD in the legs can include:

  • Pain in the legs with physical activity, such as walking, that gets better after rest
  • Aches or cramps with walking, in the buttock, hip, thigh, or calf
  • Muscle atrophy (weakness)
  • Hair loss
  • Smooth, shiny skin
  • Skin that is cool to the touch
  • Decreased or absent pulses in the feet
  • Sores or ulcers on the legs or feet that don’t heal
  • Cold or numb toes

Peripheral arterial disease is usually diagnosed based on your symptoms, a physical exam, and imaging studies like ultrasound or computed tomography (CT).

If your doctor suspects you have PAD in the legs, they will also do an ankle brachial index (ABI), a noninvasive test that measures the blood pressure in the ankles and compares it with the blood pressure in the arms at rest and after exercise.

Anyone can develop this condition, but the following risk factors increase someone’s risk of having it:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Age above 60
  • Diabetes

Peripheral artery disease is usually treated with lifestyle changes like exercise and diet modifications, but treatment may also include anticoagulant or antiplatelet medications to reduce clotting or surgery to open or bypass blocked vessels.

Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease (CAD) occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries that provide oxygen-rich blood to the heart. Usually, this process is the result of atherosclerosis. Plaque buildup causes the inside of the arteries to narrow over time, which can partially or totally block the blood flow.

Being overweight, physical inactivity, unhealthy eating, and smoking tobacco are risk factors for CAD. A family history of heart disease also increases your risk for CAD, especially a family history of having heart disease at an early age (50 or younger).

Chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of CAD. Narrowed arteries can cause chest pain because they can block blood flow to your heart muscle and the rest of your body. Other symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue

Diagnosis of coronary artery disease is made after a review of your personal and family medical history, your diet and lifestyle, symptoms you are having, a physical assessment, and cardiac tests including:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG), which measures the electrical activity, rate, and regularity of your heartbeat
  • Echocardiogram, which uses ultrasound to create a picture of the heart
  • Exercise stress test, which measures your heart rate while you walk on a treadmill
  • Chest X-ray, which creates a picture of the heart, lungs, and other organs in the chest
  • Cardiac catheterization, which checks the inside of your arteries for blockage by inserting a thin, flexible tube through an artery in the groin, arm, or neck to reach the heart
  • Coronary artery calcium scan, which checks for calcium buildup in the arteries
  • Coronary angiogram, which uses X-rays to detect dye injected via cardiac catheterization

Your doctor will develop a treatment plan that may involve the surgical placement of stents, bypass, medications, and therapy services like cardiac rehabilitation.

Carotid Artery Disease

Your carotid arteries are two large blood vessels in your neck. They supply your brain and head with blood. If you have carotid artery disease, the arteries become narrow or blocked due to a buildup of plaque.

You can also have a blockage when a piece of plaque or a blood clot breaks off the wall of an artery and gets stuck in one of your brain’s smaller arteries.

Risk factors for carotid artery disease are similar to those for plaque formation in other parts of the body, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Family history of atherosclerosis
  • Older age
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Obesity

Carotid artery disease often does not cause symptoms until the blockage or narrowing is severe. One sign may be a bruit, or whooshing sound, that your doctor hears when listening to your neck with a stethoscope. Another sign is a transient ischemic attack (TIA). It is like a stroke, but it only lasts for less than 24 hours.

Symptoms of a stroke and TIA can include:

  • A sudden, severe headache with no known cause
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Inability to move one or more of your limbs
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden weakness or numbness in the face or limbs, often on one side of the body
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech

Even if your TIA symptoms stop quickly, call 911. A TIA is a warning sign that you’re at high risk of having a stroke, so you shouldn’t ignore these symptoms.

Like other types of arterial disease, carotid artery disease is diagnosed with ultrasound and imaging studies, and treatment focuses on opening vessels surgically or controlling things like blood pressure and cholesterol with medications.

Vertebrobasilar Disease

Vertebrobasilar disease describes a variety of conditions that affect blood flow to the back of the brain. The arteries that serve the back of the brain are called vertebral arteries, and these vessels can become blocked or damaged due to a buildup of plaque or atherosclerosis.

The narrowing of the vertebral or basilar arteries caused by atherosclerosis creates vertebrobasilar insufficiency, or an insufficient delivery of blood to the rear structures of the brain.

Like carotid artery disease, vertebrobasilar disease increases a person’s risk of having a stroke or TIA. Vertebrobasilar disease is twice as common in men than women and typically occurs in the elderly.

Common symptoms of vertebrobasilar disease include:

  • Dizziness
  • Visual changes (blurred, graying, double vision)
  • Sudden falls
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Slurred or lost speech
  • Confusion
  • Issues with swallowing

The risk factors, diagnosis, and treatment for vertebrobasilar disease are similar to those for other arterial diseases.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

The thoracic outlet is the ring formed by the top ribs, just below the collarbone. Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) occurs when the vessels in the lower neck and upper chest area are compressed by the rib, collarbone, or neck muscles. This can result in pain and restrict blood flow.

There are three types of TOS, depending on what type of vessel is affected:

  • Neurogenic TOS affects the nerves leading from the neck to the arm (the brachial plexus).
  • Venous TOS affects the veins, leading to upper body thrombosis (blood clot).
  • Arterial TOS affects the arteries.

Arterial TOS is the least common of the three and is usually caused by abnormal bone formations that are present at birth. Symptoms of this type of TOS may include:

  • Cold and pale hand
  • Pain in the hand and arm, especially during overhead motions of the arm
  • Embolism (blockage) of an artery in the hand or arm
  • Aneurysm of the subclavian artery

TOS can also develop more easily if you engage in weight lifting; have sleep problems, stress, poor posture, or injuries; or perform repetitive motions.

Imaging studies such as a duplex ultrasound and tests that measure your nerve impulses and blood flow through this area can help diagnose TOS.

Surgery is usually recommended for arterial TOS, such as reconstruction or replacement of the artery if the artery has an aneurysm or contains a clot. Your doctor may also prescribe blood thinners to treat a blood clot.

Why Is Diabetes a Risk Factor for Vascular Diseases?

High levels of glucose can contribute to the buildup of plaque and damage the function of nerves in a condition called neuropathy. Good glucose control and lowering insulin resistance are the keys to controlling diabetes and preventing complications that can come with the condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is there a test to screen for arterial diseases?

No. There are many arteries in the body, and no single test can check the health of all of them. If your doctor is concerned about arterial disease in a particular area of your body, they may order imaging tests to help pinpoint the problem.

Are arterial diseases reversible?

Not really. Although some studies have shown success in stopping or even reversing coronary artery disease with a plant-based diet, prevention is often the best strategy for avoiding arterial diseases.

What is the most common arterial disease?

Peripheral artery disease is underdiagnosed and believed to be the most common of all arterial diseases, with at least 15 million Americans having the condition.

How does an arterial disease lead to necrosis?

Necrosis is the medical term for cell death. Cells die when they become injured or their supply of oxygen and nutrients are cut off (ischemia). Cells die at different rates without blood flow. For example, brain cells can die in as few as five minutes without oxygen supplied by blood. Arterial disease can lead to necrosis by reducing or stopping blood flow to various parts of the body.

How are arterial diseases diagnosed?

Arterial diseases are usually diagnosed with a combination of physical exam, a review of symptoms and medical history, imaging studies like ultrasound, and other specific tests like cardiac catheterization for arterial diseases affecting the heart.

What type of specialist should I see if I’m having symptoms of an arterial disease? 

Typically, a vascular specialist will guide your diagnosis and treatment for arterial disease. If other body systems like the heart, brain, or kidneys are affected, you may also see a cardiologist, neurologist, or nephrologist.

How does diabetes lead to arterial disease?

High levels of glucose in the blood damage vessels and increase your likelihood of developing blockages from atherosclerosis.

Summary

Arterial diseases affect the arteries in your body, which send oxygen-rich blood from your heart and lungs to other parts of your body. When the arteries become blocked, the supply of oxygen and nutrients is cut off, resulting in various problems. Arterial diseases can occur in any part of your body. The best way to treat them is to prevent them by following a healthy lifestyle and keeping your chronic conditions in check.

A Word From Verywell

Without your arteries, your heart and lungs could not feed the body’s tissues and organs with the oxygen and nutrients they need to function. Prevention is key: Exercising, quitting smoking, reducing your fat and cholesterol intake, and controlling chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes can help you avoid arterial disease.

Arterial diseases can often develop with few symptoms, but when one becomes a problem, it can cause serious issues like heart attack or stroke. Talk to your doctor about ways to improve your overall health and what genetic or familial traits you may have that raise your risk of developing an arterial disease.

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Article Sources
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