Arterial thrombosis

Arterial thrombosis is a blood clot that develops in an artery. It is very dangerous as it can obstruct the flow of blood to major organs.

Information written and reviewed by Certified Doctors.

Contents

Key Information

What should I do?

If you think you have this condition, you should call an ambulance or go to the hospital immediately.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor might suspect arterial thrombosis based on your symptoms and physical examination findings. Depending on where the thrombosis is suspected to be, other tests might be needed to confirm the diagnosis. For example, if it is thought to be in the heart, an electrocardiogram (ECG) might be recommended.

What is the treatment?

Most cases of arterial thrombosis are treated either with an injection which can dissolve the blood clot, or surgically. Your doctor might discuss different surgical options with you depending on where the clot is. Different surgical options include:

  • embolectomy (removal of the clot)
  • angioplasty (widening the affected artery)
  • bypass surgery (divert the blood using a graft vessel usually taken from your leg).

Introduction

Arterial thrombosis is a blood clot that develops in an artery. It is very dangerous as it can obstruct the flow of blood to major organs.

Depending on where the clot forms, arterial thrombosis can cause several serious conditions, including:

  • heart attack – when the blood flow to the heart is affected
  • stroke – when the blood flow to the brain is affected
  • peripheral arterial disease (PAD), also known as peripheral vascular disease (PVD) – when the blood flow in the legs is affected

Heart attack and stroke are leading causes of death in the UK.

Who's at risk?

Most cases of arterial thrombosis are caused when an artery is damaged by atherosclerosis. This is where fatty deposits called plaque build up on the walls of the arteries, causing them to harden and narrow. If the plaque ruptures (bursts), a blood clot may develop.

You're at an increased risk of developing an arterial blood clot if you:

  • eat a high-fat diet
  • smoke
  • drink more units of alcohol than the maximum recommended
  • are obese
  • don't exercise
  • have diabetes (either type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes)
  • have high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • have a high cholesterol level

The risk of arterial thrombosis also increases with age, so older people are more commonly affected.

Treating arterial thrombosis

It is sometimes possible to treat arterial thrombosis with medication or surgery.

Medication

In some cases, a type of medication called a thrombolytic can be used to dissolve blood clots and restore the flow of blood in an artery. Examples of thrombolytic medicines include alteplase and reteplase.

These medicines are most effective if they are used as soon as possible after a heart attack or stroke starts.

Surgery

Surgery for arterial thrombosis involves unblocking the affected artery or re-routing blood flow around the blockage. The type of surgery used will depend on the location and severity of your condition.

For example, you may need heart surgery if the blood clot is in an artery that supplies blood to your heart. Operations used to treat this include:

  • coronary stent placement – where a balloon is inflated in a blocked artery (angioplasty) to allow a hollow metal tube called a stent to be placed so it can widen the artery and stop it from becoming blocked again
  • coronary artery bypass graft – where a blood vessel taken from another part of the body is used to bypass the point of the blockage

If you have a blood clot in your neck, you may have surgery called carotid endarterectomy. During this operation, the surgeon makes a cut in your neck to open up the artery and remove the fatty deposits.

Reducing your risk

It is not possible to prevent blood clots altogether, but there are a number of ways you can minimise your risk.

Medication

If you have previously had a blood clot, you may need to take medicines to reduce the risk of it happening again. These include:

  • statins to lower your blood cholesterol levels
  • anticoagulant medicines (such as warfarin) or antiplatelet medicines (such as low-dose aspirin or clopidogrel) to thin the blood and reduce the risk of clotting
  • antihypertensive medicines to reduce high blood pressure, such as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors

Lifestyle

You can also reduce your risk of developing arterial thrombosis and heart disease by:

  • not smoking
  • reducing the amount of salt you eat
  • cutting down on fat (particularly saturated fat)
  • eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day
  • doing a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, such as walking, cycling or energetic housework
Content supplied by NHS Choices