Introduction 

Arterial thrombosis is a blood clot that develops in an artery. It's very dangerous, because 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 blood flow to the heart is suddenly blocked 
  • stroke  when blood flow to the brain is cut off 
  • peripheral arterial disease (PAD), also known as peripheral vascular disease (PVD)  when a build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries restricts the blood supply to leg muscles

Heart attack and stroke are two of the 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.

Your risk of developing an arterial blood clot is increased if you:

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

Treating arterial thrombosis

It's 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 blood flow in an artery. Examples of thrombolytic medicines include alteplase and reteplase.

These medicines are most effective if they're 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 the flow of blood 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 used to 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 a type of 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 isn't possible to entirely prevent blood clots from forming, but there are numerous ways you can minimise your risk.

Medication

If you've 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, sinthrone, dabigatran, apixiban, rivaroxaban, 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:

Other types of blood clot

As well as arterial thrombosis, there are several other types of blood clot, including:

  • venous thromboembolism (VTE)  a blood clot that develops in a vein
  • deep vein thrombosis (DVT)  a blood clot in one of the deep veins in the body, usually in the leg
  • embolism  a condition where the blood flow in an artery is blocked by a foreign body, such as a blood clot or an air bubble
  • pulmonary embolism  a blood clot in the pulmonary artery, which is the blood vessel that transports blood from the heart to the lungs

Page last reviewed: 18/02/2015

Next review due: 18/02/2017