Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood and nutrients from the heart throughout the body. Healthy arteries are smooth and blood passes through them easily. But a buildup of cholesterol, fat, and calcium, called plaque, in the inner walls of the arteries can slow down blood flow, sometimes blocking it altogether.
Clogged or blocked arteries, or atherosclerosis, can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure), stroke, or even death, so it is vital to understand the signs and symptoms of blocked arteries.
Symptoms of Clogged or Blocked Arteries
Blocked arteries can become too narrow and hardened to function properly. While you may have no obvious signs early on, symptoms can develop as plaque builds up in the arteries.
The hardening and narrowing of the arteries is called atherosclerosis. It may result in chest discomfort, called angina, dizziness, or excessive sweating. This condition can lead to peripheral arterial disease (PAD), a narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the legs and arms. Initially, PAD may cause pain and make walking difficult.
When PAD affects the aorta (the body’s main blood vessel) or iliac arteries that carry blood to the legs and pelvic organs, it can cause aortoiliac occlusive disease. This disease develops over a lifetime with varying symptoms that include:
- Pain or cramping in the thighs, buttocks, or calves when walking.
- Pain, cold, or numbness in toes while resting.
- Foot or leg ulcers that don’t heal.
- Gangrene if arterial blockage remains, resulting in total loss of circulation.
- Shortness of breath.
- Excessive fatigue after physical activity.
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Do I Have Blocked Arteries?
Some common risks factors for blocked arteries are:
- A diet high in saturated and trans fats, salt, and processed foods.
- Lack of exercise.
- High blood pressure.
- Cigarette smoking.
Having more than one of these risk factors increases your chances of developing blocked arteries. For example, if you don’t exercise, you may become overweight or obese, which increases your chances of developing diabetes and/or high blood pressure.
Your risk also is higher if your father or brother was diagnosed with heart disease before the age of 55, or your mother or sister received a diagnosis before age 65.
When to Talk to Your Doctor
If you are experiencing symptoms of a blocked artery or have a family history of this disease, you should speak with our heart and vascular specialists. For an appointment at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, complete an appointment-request form or call 1-855-UPMC-HVI (876-2484).
Test for blocked arteries
If you feel that you are experiencing clogged or blocked arteries, the doctor may suggest tests such as a cholesterol screening, chest x-rays, CT scans, or an ultrasound. We also can help you manage your stress, weight, diabetes, or high blood pressure, and quit smoking, which can help reduce your risk of blocked arteries.
How Long Can You Live with Blocked Arteries?
Many risk factors and bad habits can lead blocked arteries, and the effects of blocked arteries are usually only noticed once you have a problem. Therefore, it is difficult to say how long someone may live with blocked arteries. Complications from blocked arteries may be reduced by quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, monitoring blood pressure, eating healthier, and exercising regularly.
If changes in habits and routines are not effective in stopping the complications of blocked arteries, your doctor may suggest medicine to help improve blood pressure or cholesterol levels. If symptoms are severe, causing angina or chest pain leading to a heart attack, your doctor might suggest a procedure to place stents in the arteries. In this procedure, the doctor places a wire mesh tube in the artery to increase circulation and prevent the artery from narrowing again.
If your symptoms of blocked arteries have led to heart disease, doctors may encourage a bypass surgery. This is a more intrusive surgery and creates new passageway for the aorta by using another healthy blood vessel from elsewhere in the body.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.