Arterial thrombosis occurs when a blood clot forms in an artery. It can be life-threatening when the clot forms in an area that restrict blood flow to the heart, brain, and the extremities. When blood to these areas is restricted, heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral artery disease, commonly known as PAD, often result. Knowing how to recognize bodily changes as possible symptoms of arterial thrombosis and getting early medical attention could prevent permanent injury, loss of limbs, and death.
Definition & Facts
When a blood clot forms within a blood vessel, it is medically-known as a thrombus. The process by which a thrombus obstruct the flow of blood in a blood vessel is thrombosis. When the blood vessel affected by the presence of a thrombus is an artery, arterial thrombosis develops.
While the most common material causing the obstruction is coagulated blood, it can also be caused by other foreign materials introduced into the artery, including bacteria, fatty material, or an air bubble.
While thrombus and embolus are sometimes used interchangeably, it is important to understand the difference between the two terms. An embolus (singular for emboli) is a thrombus that dislodges from the blood vessel wall and is moved along through the body by the bloodstream. Emboli are dangerous because as they travel, they can become stuck in smaller blood vessels of major organs such as the brain, heart, and lungs (pulmonary embolism).
Because arterial thrombosis can deprive vital organs of the nutrients and oxygen carried by blood, they can cause heart attacks and strokes. When the condition remains undiagnosed and untreated in the extremities, blood vessels narrows over time, gangrene can set in, and amputation may become necessary.
Symptoms & Complaints
- Chest pain
- Pain in one leg, commonly in the inner thigh or calf
- Swelling in the legs and feet
- Feeling weak/numb on one side of the body
- Changes in mental status, i.e., mental fogginess, inability to focus
Complaints of pain in the area of the affected artery are common among those suffering from arterial thrombosis. They may also complain of numbness, tingling, spasms, or muscle weakness in an extremity. Locating a pulse past the point of blockage in an artery may be difficult, and the skin in the area may have a pale or mottled appearance. It is not uncommon for people presenting with these complaints to have a medical history of cardiovascular disease or a long course of intravenous therapy, or to have recently undergone surgery or suffered a stroke.
The vast majority of thrombosis cases occur in arteries that have been negatively affected by atherosclerosis, which is a hardening of the arteries due to a build-up of plaque. When the plaque build-up erodes or ruptures, a blood clot, or arterial thrombosis, develops.
The chances of developing the condition also arises in people who have diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), and high cholesterol. Age is an additional factor, as incidences of arterial thrombosis increase in older populations.
Diagnosis & Tests
Diagnosis of arterial thrombosis generally begins with the taking of a thorough patient and family history and performing a physical examination. Tests should also be conducted to identify the presence, location and possible causes for the obstruction. Other diagnostic tools that can be utilized to diagnose arterial thrombosis include:
- Electrocardiograms (ECGs) to measure the heart's electrical activity
- Test to measure blood cardiac enzymes
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)s and/or X-rays to visualize the affected blood vessel and the obstruction
- Examination of blood cultures to identify organisms that may have caused an infection
- A flexible fiber-optic catheter, inserted into the artery for visualization of the clot
Treatment & Therapy
Treatment of arterial thrombosis is most effective when it is begun as soon as possible after the condition is diagnosed. The condition can be treated with medication, surgery, or a combination of the two, depending upon the urgency of the medical event and the condition of the patient.
In emergency situations such as immediately following a heart attack or stroke, medications designed to dissolve blood clots and re-establish blood flow can be most effective. Surgery may be the first and best option when there is a need to unblock an artery or to get blood flowing around the blockage. Where the blockage is located and the patient's condition will dictate the kind of surgery performed.
Two common surgical procedures include coronary stent placement where a hollow tube (a stent) is placed to widen and hold open an affected artery, and coronary artery bypass graft where a healthy blood vessel from another area of the body is grafted to bypass the artery blockage.
Prevention & Prophylaxis
Those who consume alcohol in an excessive manner should also make efforts towards reducing their intake or quitting altogether. Regular exercise and a healthy diet also reduce the risk of arterial thrombosis and other cardiovascular conditions.
There are also prescription and non-prescription medications that may be used to decrease the chances of developing blood clots. These include statins to help lower and manage cholesterol levels, anticoagulants to reduce the risk of clotting by thinning the blood, and medications to manage and control other chronic conditions that contribute to arterial thrombosis such as diabetes and hypertension.