Can Your Arteries Get Blocked Anywhere in the Body?

Yes – learn how the body adapts

Peripheral Artery Disease

We often hear about blocked arteries in the heart and brain, but why don’t we hear more about blockages in other parts of the body?

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Curtis M. Rimmerman, MD, a cardiologist in the Robert and Suzanne Tomsich Department of Cardiovascular Medicine, recently addressed this topic in a New York Times Ask Well blog post.

In the post, Dr. Rimmerman acknowledged that, in fact, blockages in other organs are quite common but may not always cause noticeable symptoms. The ones that occur in the heart and brain are often a matter of life and death, and thus receive more attention, he explained.

Dr. Rimmerman also shared the following insights:

PAD: A Silent Disease

Arteries create a delivery system throughout the entire body, and the system’s vessels are susceptible to blockages anywhere.  About eight million Americans, for example, have an often-silent condition known as peripheral artery disease, or PAD, the narrowing of arteries that deliver blood to the arms and legs.

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The Body’s Own Bypass

PAD is caused by the accumulation of plaque in arteries, the same process that causes many heart attacks and strokes. When a blockage occurs in the leg, though, the body can sometimes grow new blood vessels to reroute blood around the blockage. In the heart and brain, that is usually not the case. A blockage there often will result in tissue loss, Dr. Rimmerman said.

“Because these are vital organs, the effects are dramatic,” he explains. “Tissue loss here means a heart attack or stroke.” These are more severe results than what occurs, for example, with a blockage to the liver.

Why Not Veins?

Atherosclerosis can occur in any artery – but not in the veins, the vessels that carry blood back to the heart.

Dr. Rimmerman explains that the arteries are a high-pressure flow system. This extreme pressure affects the inner lining of the vessels, allowing cholesterol to collect more easily.

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The veins, however, operate on low pressure, so they are not as susceptible to build-up. One caveat: During a bypass operation, doctors can transplant veins from one part of the body to the heart, where they then take on the job of an artery. As an artery replacement a vein can become vulnerable to atherosclerosis.

“Over time, those veins can narrow, as arteries do,” Dr. Rimmerman said. “Left in place, they theoretically would not ever develop a blockage.”

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