Circulation is the continuous flow of blood from the heart to the body and back to the heart again. This progression keeps you alive. Much like the pipes that circulate water in your home, blood vessels carry blood throughout your body. Vessels that deliver oxygen-rich blood to your body are called arteries. Your arms and legs also contain veins, which are vessels that return oxygen poor blood to the heart.
Anatomy of an artery
An artery is a muscular tube with a smooth inner wall that allows blood to freely pass, giving your body tissues oxygen. When you are physically active, muscles and organs use more oxygen and your heart and arteries increase the flow of blood to meet the increased demand.
How circulation becomes impaired
Artery walls become thicker and lose their elasticity with age. In addition, a build-up of fat and other materials called plaque may collect in the artery wall. This plaque causes the artery to become narrow, a condition called hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis. The artery may eventually become so narrowed that it becomes impossible for blood to flow freely.
A damaged artery
Peripheral artery disease starts with damage to the artery’s smooth inner wall. Damage occurs more quickly if risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol are present. Plaque is formed when the materials collect within and along the wall of the artery. Symptoms of peripheral arterial disease aren’t likely at this point.
A narrowed artery
The artery will become narrowed and blood flow is reduced if the plaque continues to collect. Blood flow may not be sufficient to meet the body’s need for extra oxygen during activity. You may feel tired after walking a short distance or may experience leg cramps (claudication). At this stage, no lasting tissue or muscle damage has occurred, but your quality of life is lessened and you are at a much higher risk for heart attack and stroke.
A blocked artery
In a severely narrowed artery, the flow of blood may not be completely blocked by a blood clot or plaque. If this occurs, you may experience pain even during rest. Gangrene (tissue death) or permanent damage may occur without a constant supply of oxygen. This will often take place in the feet and especially the toes. You will most likely need to have this artery opened by a procedure called angioplasty, or have the diseased part of the artery bypassed with surgery.