The subclavian arteries are pipes that carry blood rich in oxygen from your heart to your arms and the back of your brain. Subclavian artery disease develops when blood flow is decreased because a section of one of these arteries has become narrow or is blocked. This blockage is often caused by the buildup of plaque—fat, cholesterol and other substances—also called atherosclerosis.
If you have subclavian artery disease, you have a higher chance of developing this buildup in other arteries throughout your body, which can lead to a heart attack, chest pain, stroke or cramping (claudication) in the legs. In some cases, the blockage can be caused by birth defects, radiation exposure, or pressure on the artery from outside sources.
Subclavian artery disease is a form of peripheral arterial disease (PAD), which involves blockages in arteries outside of your heart. However, the blood vessels of the upper body are affected less often. About 3% of the general population has subclavian artery disease, and in those with PAD, the percentage is 11%.
Often, subclavian artery disease does not cause any symptoms because the disease progresses slowly or the body creates blood vessels around the blockage to maintain flow—or both. The symptoms that do occur are tied to the area that is blocked. You may experience arm pain or muscle fatigue when using your arms above your head, or doing any activity that demands more oxygen-rich blood flow to the arms. Other symptoms can include:
- Dizziness (vertigo) with arm activity
- Feeling as if you might pass out
- Blurred, double or partial loss of vision
Your health care professional may suspect subclavian artery disease if the top number of your blood pressure differs greatly between both arms (more than 20 mm Hg). The pulses in both of your arms will be compared as well as the temperature of your skin. In severe cases, your fingers may change colors and have pain without activity. Imaging tests to examine the blood flow in the subclavian artery and lab work often will be ordered.
Use this condition center to learn more about subclavian artery disease, how it’s treated and for help preparing questions to ask during your next health visit.