Recognizing the Signs of Artery Disease in Your Arms

Tasked with carrying blood from your heart to your body, your arteries deliver essential oxygen and nutrients to your brain, organs, muscles, and other tissues. If your arteries aren’t as flexible or as open as they should be, the vital flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients can suffer. 

This is precisely what happens with atherosclerosis, a chronic disease that occurs when plaque buildup hardens and narrows your arteries. Besides boosting your chances of having a heart attack or stroke, this progressive disorder can set the stage for other serious health conditions, including peripheral artery disease (PAD).   

The seasoned specialists at Vascular Institute of New York provide expert care for all forms of PAD, including arm artery disease. Being able to spot the signs of this progressive disorder is the first step in getting the treatment you need to protect your long-term health. Here’s what you should know. 

Understanding arm artery disease

Atherosclerosis can affect any artery in your body, including the main artery in your neck that supplies your brain with oxygen-rich blood (carotid artery disease) as well as the large arteries of your heart (coronary artery disease).  

PAD is the form of atherosclerosis that affects your peripheral arteries, or the arteries in your arms, pelvis, or legs. More than 10 million people in the United States live with PAD, and most experience its symptoms in their lower extremities (leg artery disease). 

Arm artery disease may be less common, but it can be just as problematic. Like other forms of PAD, arm artery disease is usually a byproduct of plaque buildup and atherosclerosis; it can also be triggered by an autoimmune disease or brought on by dialysis-related complications.   

More alarmingly, arm artery disease can be caused by an arterial embolism, or a blood clot that travels from your heart or elsewhere in your body and blocks an artery in your arm. 

Recognizing the signs and symptoms

In its earliest stages, PAD-related arm artery disease is a relatively silent, or hidden, disorder that doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms. One of the first symptoms you may experience as it gradually progresses is intermittent claudication (IC). 

IC causes temporary pain, discomfort, cramping, or heaviness in your arm and/or hand that you only experience when you’re using your arm. Activities that require you to raise your arms, such as washing or combing your hair, are often all it takes to trigger IC pain, which usually subsides as soon as you rest your arms.  

As arm artery disease continues to progress, your fingers may begin to feel uncomfortable or even painful when they’re resting. You may also experience noticeable skin changes on your fingers or hands — your fingers may turn pale white or even blue, and your entire hand may become more sensitive to cold temperatures.   

Remember, every sign and symptom of arm artery disease stems from insufficient blood flow — the affected arm isn’t getting the oxygen and nutrients it needs to thrive. If the problem is allowed to continue unchecked, your muscles may begin to atrophy, or die, and your skin and nails won’t be as healthy.  

This helps explain why many people with advanced arm artery disease experience persistent arm weakness or heaviness, slow-growing arm hair and fingernails, or even slow-healing sores on their hands or fingers. Some people can no longer detect a pulse on their wrist. 

At its most severe, arm artery disease can give rise to gangrene, or total tissue death. Because gangrene that’s infected with bacteria can be fatal, the affected body part is usually removed, or amputated. 

Protecting your long-term health

If you experience sudden, severe pain and/or numbness in an arm or hand, call 911 — these symptoms may indicate you have a fresh blood clot, which is a medical emergency. While most small to mid-sized clots can be safely dissolved with thrombolytic therapy, large clots may need to be extracted surgically.

For non-emergency cases of arm artery disease, the right treatment approach depends on the location and severity of your blockage(s) as well as its underlying cause. Moderate-to-severe arterial blockages may require surgical treatment such as an angioplasty or an endarterectomy.

When the disease is driven by atherosclerosis, getting your health under control is vitally important. You may need to take medication to manage a chronic condition like diabetes, high cholesterol, or hypertension; you may also need to quit smoking, get more exercise, and cut the junk from your diet, too.  

If you suspect you have arm artery disease, the team at Vascular Institute of New York can help. Call our New York City office in Borough Park, Brooklyn, or click online to schedule a visit today.

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