You may take your arteries–and in fact, your whole cardiovascular system—for granted until they stop working properly. However, it’s important to pay attention to this set of organs because your arteries can develop deposits called plaque that build up and eventually restrict the flow of blood from your heart to your arms, legs, and other parts of your body. And that can have very serious consequences for your health.
Learn more about how those blockages can develop, the repercussions they can have, as well as how to recognize the symptoms of clogged arteries so you can prevent them from developing in the first place.
What causes clogged arteries?
The most likely culprit of clogged arteries: the build-up of plaque, those fatty, cholesterol-rich deposits that stick to the insides of your artery walls. This creates a condition called atherosclerosis. This build-up of fats, cholesterol, and other substances causes the arteries to narrow, which restricts the flow of blood.
Atherosclerosis can be caused by damage to the arteries resulting from any of a number of factors, including:
- High cholesterol
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- High triglyceride levels
- Tobacco use
- Insulin resistance
Then, blood cells and other substances may gather and begin to build up at the site of the damage.
Dangers of clogged arteries
Normally, your arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from your heart out to your body. But what happens when your arteries begin to narrow, as a result of that build-up of plaque?
First, the flow of blood in your body becomes restricted. If your coronary arteries are partially blocked, your heart may not get enough oxygen-rich blood when it needs it, which may lead to chest pain or shortness of breath.
Also, that plaque can actually crack, too, which can lead to blood clotting at the site. A blood clot on top of a ruptured plaque may completely block a coronary artery and stop the flow of blood, which can damage your heart muscle and cause a heart attack. Likewise, a blood clot that stops the flow of blood in an artery to your brain can cause a stroke.
Symptoms of clogged arteries
The symptoms of clogged or blocked arteries can vary from person to person, and the symptoms may also vary depending on where the blockages occur.
Clogged coronary artery symptoms
For example, when plaque builds up in your coronary arteries, it can lead to the development of coronary artery disease. Some common symptoms of atherosclerosis in your coronary arteries include:
- Chest pressure or pain, also known as angina
- Shortness of breath
“This chest pain is usually brought on by exertion and relieved with rest,” says Hoang Nguyen, MD, an interventional cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, adding that lack of blood flow to the heart may also result in sweating, dizziness, or a clammy feeling. However, women often experience symptoms of angina differently than men.
Clogged arm or leg artery symptoms
If you have clogs or blockages in the arteries in your arms or legs, you may develop symptoms of peripheral artery disease. These symptoms can include decreased blood pressure in an arm or leg, or even pain in your leg while you’re walking, which is known as claudication. As the condition worsens, you may experience claudication even when you’re sitting still.
Clogged kidney artery symptoms
Renal artery stenosis is the narrowing of the arteries that bring blood to your kidneys. It may have no symptoms, or you may develop high blood pressure or reduced kidney function.
Clogged carotid artery symptoms
Carotid artery disease occurs when arteries in your neck become blocked and restrict blood flow to your brain. According to Penn Medicine, the most common sign of advancing carotid artery disease is a ministroke known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA). Other symptoms may include:
- Blurred vision
- Memory loss
- Numbness or weakness on one side of your body
- Trouble with reasoning, speaking, or thinking
However, you may have a blocked artery and not feel anything at all, especially early on. In fact, it’s very common to not have any symptoms if you have mild atherosclerosis, according to the Mayo Clinic. The Cleveland Clinic notes that you may start to notice symptoms when your artery is 70% blocked. So for example, you may have no idea that you have a clogged artery—until you have a heart attack.
How to check for clogged arteries
If your healthcare provider is concerned that you may have a blocked artery, you might need to undergo some tests to check for clogged arteries. Your provider may start the process by taking a detailed personal medical history and family history, as well as a physical exam.
Your healthcare provider might suggest some of the following diagnostic tests to gather useful information:
- Blood tests: These can check your cholesterol levels and your blood sugar levels. This information can be useful in determining your risk of atherosclerosis.
- Angiogram: This type of test uses X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computerized tomography (CT) scans along with dye injected into your blood vessels to look at your arteries and identify plaque build-up and blockages in various parts of your body.
- Ultrasound: Sound waves can help detect how blood is moving through vessels in the arms, legs, neck, or kidneys to determine if there is a blocked or narrowed spot.
If a coronary artery blockage is suspected, the following tests may be used:
- Stress tests: An abnormal result may suggest that not enough blood is making it to your heart due to blockages. The options here include exercise stress tests, pharmacological stress tests, and nuclear stress tests.
- Electrocardiogram: This test measures electrical signals from your heart and can show whether you’ve had a heart attack.
- Cardiac catheterization: A specially trained cardiologist and team will insert a long narrow tube, or catheter, into a blood vessel and then into your coronary arteries. Next, they inject contrast material and then use digital imaging to watch as the dye travels through your heart and major vessels. This helps them identify blockages and narrowings.
- Coronary calcium scan: Also known as a heart scan, this specialized X-ray helps your healthcare provider identify calcium build-up inside your arteries, which is a sign of coronary artery disease.
“The first step when evaluating a patient with potential atherosclerotic heart disease is to get an electrocardiogram to ascertain any evidence of a prior heart attack or impending heart attack,” Dr. Nguyen says.
Treatment for clogged arteries
Your provider may consider a number of options before recommending a particular treatment for you. Common non-surgical treatment options for clogged arteries include:
- Medications: Your healthcare provider might prescribe a statin to help manage your cholesterol levels and plaque development—and lower your risk of heart attack or stroke. In some cases, a provider might recommend aspirin therapy to decrease the risk of heart attack or stroke.
- Balloon angioplasty: Via a minimally invasive procedure, your provider can use a thin flexible tube called a catheter to guide a balloon into an artery to widen it and improve blood flow.
- Stents: During a balloon or coronary angioplasty, your provider might also insert a small mesh tube called a stent to hold your narrowed or blocked artery open.
However, surgical treatments may be a better choice for some people with clogged arteries.
Your healthcare provider might recommend coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG), which entails harvesting a blood vessel from another part of your body, such as a vein from your leg, and using that to bypass the blocked part of your artery. This procedure can be conducted during a traditional open heart surgery, which may involve temporarily stopping your heart and relying on a heart-lung bypass machine. However, there are also “off-pump” surgeries that don’t require stopping the heart. Also, surgeons can sometimes offer a minimally invasive procedure, with a shorter healing time, as an alternative. The timing may also affect what your provider recommends.
“If a blockage is discovered in the setting of chronic stable coronary artery disease, several large studies over the past 20 years have confirmed that medical management can be just as safe and effective as stents or bypass surgery,” says Evan Jacobs, MD, the national medical director of cardiovascular services with Conviva Care Centers in Florida.
If you have carotid artery disease, a surgical procedure called a carotid endarterectomy may be an option. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, your provider will make an incision in your artery, surgically remove the plaque that’s built up inside your carotid artery, then sew the artery back together.
Once you have a blocked artery, can you do anything about it? Is there a way to reverse the problem naturally? Usually, once arteries are blocked, you need to use medical management or stents to reverse the issue. It’s unlikely that diet or exercise can return arteries to a normal state.
Preventing clogged arteries
According to Dr. Jacobs, it’s better to focus on prevention. “The best way to address this is to avoid blockages in the first place,” he says. Some of the most recommended prevention strategies are lifestyle changes. Tips for keeping your arteries healthy include:
- Change your diet.“The most effective way to prevent plaque build-up in our arteries is to eat a heart-healthy diet that is low in fat, carbohydrates, and sodium,” Dr. Nguyen says. Your provider might recommend trying the Mediterranean diet, an approach to eating that emphasizes plant-based foods and healthy fats. Think lots of veggies, fruits, whole grains, and olive oil, with limited amounts of meat.
- Exercise more. Regular exercise is also a key component in preventing cardiovascular disease and promoting heart health. Regular physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce related risk factors. Experts generally suggest aiming for 150 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, every week.
- Stop smoking. Nicotine makes your arteries stiffen and tighten, which makes your heart work harder.
- Manage your blood pressure. You may need medication to help you control high blood pressure. But if you don’t know if you have high blood pressure, it’s time to find out. Ideally, your healthcare provider should check your blood pressure levels every 3-5 years if you’re 18 to 39 years old and annually if you’re 40 years and older—and possibly more often if you have a history of hypertension.
- Check your blood sugar. If you have diabetes, it’s important to keep good control of your blood glucose levels, as over time, high blood sugar levels can damage your blood vessels.
“What we know for certain is that primary prevention—preventing blockages in the first place—works,” says Dr. Nguyen. So, take action now, before you have a problem.