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Symptoms of Blocked Arteries
Solid Science™ about Your Arteries
By Terry Dunkle, DietPower Editor-In-Chief*
Symptoms of blocked arteries vary, depending on the location of the arteries and whether the blockage is sudden or gradual.
The most common cause of blocked arteries is atherosclerosis (sometimes called "hardening of the arteries"), in which fatty deposits called plaques accumulate inside the artery walls. As the plaques grow, they may eventually block the flow of blood.
If the blockage happens gradually (over months or years), the symptoms may be mild at first. One example is angina, a pain or feeling of pressure or fullness in the chest, caused when coronary arteries supply too little oxygen to the heart. Angina worsens during physical exertion, which places greater demands on the heart. It tends to go away when the victim rests.
Occasionally, a fragment of plaque may break off, travel through the bloodstream, and lodge in a narrow spot, producing a sudden blockage that triggers more intense symptoms. One example is a heart attack, caused when the blockage strikes a coronary artery.
Other Symptoms of Blocked Arteries in the Heart
Besides the "crushing chest pain" often described by heart attack victims, symptoms of blocked arteries in the heart include:
- Pain or a burning sensation in one or both arms, the neck, or the jaw
- Extreme fatigue
- Profuse sweating
- Nausea or vomiting
- A "doomed" feeling
Symptoms of Blocked Arteries in the Legs
One of the most common sites of blocked arteries is the legs. If a blockage happens suddenly, the affected area will feel numb, cold, and intensely painful. It may also look unusually white or even bluish. No pulse will be evident. Calling 911 is urgent, as such a blockage can lead to loss of the limb.
More often, arterial blockages in the legs occur gradually. At first, the victim experiences pains in the legs when trying to walk uphill or farther than usual. The pain may occur in the upper legs, calves, ankles, or feet—but not in the joints. It usually subsides with a few minutes' rest. As the condition progresses, however, any walking may hurt, and eventually the pain may be present even when the victim is sitting or lying down. It worsens when the legs are elevated.
Over the long term, the reduced circulation may actually limit the growth of toenails or body hair.
Symptoms of Blocked Arteries in the Arms
Like the legs, the arms exhibit intense pain or numbness, pallor, and lack of pulse if a blockage happens suddenly. If the blockage is gradual, however, pain may occur only during physical exertion—playing tennis, for example. As in the legs, the blockage may eventually stymie nail or hair growth.
Symptoms of Blocked Aortic Arteries
The lower aorta, which is the largest abdominal artery, sometimes develops a blockage where it splits into the left and right iliac arteries that feed the legs. In this case, the symptoms described for leg blockages (above) will occur in both limbs instead of one, and sometimes in the buttocks. The condition may also cause erectile dysfunction.
Symptoms of a Blocked Superior Mesenteric Artery
The superior mesenteric artery feeds the stomach and intestines. If it is suddenly blocked, the victim exhibits vomiting, severe abdominal pain, abdominal swelling, and an urge to have a bowel movement. The stools turn bloody, blood pressure drops, and shock may develop. Obviously, this is a medical emergency.
Gradual blockage causes stomach pain 30 to 60 minutes after each meal, when the intestine needs more blood for absorbing nutrients. Inefficient absorption—as well as fear of eating—may lead to weight loss.
Symptoms of Blocked Renal Arteries
Blockage of an artery feeding a kidney will cause intense pain in the side, and represents a medical emergency.
Gradual blockage may lead to kidney failure or a special form of high blood pressure called renovascular hypertension. This is relatively rare, however.
Symptoms of Blocked Arteries in the Brain
A blocked artery feeding the brain causes a stroke, in which part of the brain dies for lack of oxygen. Symptoms of stroke include:
- A sudden, intense headache
- Sudden vision problems—especially if they occur in only one eye
- Trouble walking, often accompanied by stumbling or dizziness
- Numbness or paralysis on one side of the body
- Trouble speaking or understanding words
Blocked Arteries Elsewhere
The heart, legs, arms, abdomen, kidneys, and brain aren't the only parts of the body that may incur blocked arteries—but those sites are the most common. Obviously, if you suspect a blocked artery anywhere, you should get medical attention as soon as possible.
*Terry Dunkle is a 30-year veteran medical journalist and consumer advocate who serves as CEO and chief editor at DietPower, Inc., a leading developer of nutrition software and medical news and features.