Arteries, part of your circulatory (cardiovascular) system, are the blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood from your heart to all of your body’s cells. They play a crucial role in distributing oxygen, nutrients and hormones throughout your body. Arteries keep your body alive and healthy by delivering what your cells and tissues need.
Types of arteries
You have two types of arteries that have slightly different functions. Both have a role in carrying oxygen-rich blood from your heart to your body’s tissues.
The first type, elastic, is like when a football player catches the ball, absorbing the force from the throw. This is the type that gets your blood from your heart before passing it on to other arteries.
The second type, muscular, is like when they run down the field with the ball, getting it to where it needs to go. This is your blood going to your body’s tissues.
The two types of arteries are:
- Elastic: Have more elastic tissue than muscular arteries and are located close to your heart. Examples: Aorta and pulmonary artery.
- Muscular: Have more smooth muscle than elastic arteries. Examples: Femoral, radial and brachial arteries.
How are arteries different from veins?
- Take oxygen-rich blood away from your heart and distribute it to your whole body.
- Have strong, muscular walls that can handle the high pressure of blood your heart pumps out with each heartbeat.
- Don’t need valves because the force of the blood coming from your heart ensures the blood only goes in one direction.
- Bring blood back to your heart after your body’s cells and tissues have taken the oxygen out of it. This is known as oxygen-poor blood or deoxygenated blood.
- Have thinner walls because the pressure inside them isn’t as high as it is in arteries.
- Have valves inside them to keep blood from moving in the wrong direction.
What do arteries do?
Your arteries carry blood that has oxygen and nutrients in it. Your heart pumps oxygen-rich blood into the biggest artery in your body — your aorta. This branches off into parts that feed smaller and smaller arteries, eventually reaching your entire body.
How do arteries help with other organs?
Your arteries supply all of your organs with blood. Your blood contains oxygen and nutrients, which every organ in your body needs to function.
Specific arteries provide blood to organs or certain parts of your body, such as:
- Coronary arteries: Heart.
- Carotid arteries: Brain, head, face and neck.
- Vertebral arteries: Brain and spine.
- Iliac arteries: Pelvis.
- Femoral artery: Legs.
- Subclavian arteries: Head, neck and arms.
- Celiac and mesenteric arteries: Digestive system.
Interesting facts about arteries
- Arteries get messages from your central nervous system to tighten or open up. This affects your blood pressure, or the force of your blood moving through your arteries. Arteries help keep your blood pressure steady. They also control blood flow. They do both by tightening or loosening their muscle walls.
- Roughly 10% of your body’s blood is in your arteries at any point in time.
Your pulmonary artery is the only artery that carries deoxygenated blood. This artery takes blood from your heart to your lungs to get oxygen.
Where are arteries located?
Your arteries start branching out from your aorta, which gets blood from your heart. From there, arteries continue to branch out into smaller and smaller vessels going all through your body.
What do arteries look like?
Arteries look like tubes. They have thicker and more muscular walls than veins so they can handle the force of blood coming from your heart’s left ventricle. Think of them like your furnace ducts (but flexible) that take warm air throughout your house when your furnace is running.
How big are arteries?
Your aorta, your largest artery, is about 10 millimeters (mm) to 25 mm (.4 inch to .9 inch) in diameter. Other arteries can be 3 mm to 5 mm (.11 inches to .19 inches) in diameter, while the smallest arteries, arterioles, can be .30 mm to .01 mm in diameter.
What are arteries made of?
Your arteries have three layers:
- Tunica intima, or inner layer: Has tissue with elastic fiber.
- Tunica media, or middle layer: This is mostly smooth muscle that lets your arteries get tighter or more open as needed.
- Tunica externa, or outer layer: Interacts with other tissues, including nerves that send commands to pull in or expand.
Conditions and Disorders
What are the common conditions and disorders that affect arteries?
Conditions that can harm your arteries include:
- Aneurysm (a stretch or bulge in an artery that can break open).
- Blood clot.
- Coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis in your coronary arteries).
- Carotid artery disease (atherosclerosis in your carotid artery).
- High blood pressure.
- High cholesterol.
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD).
Common signs or symptoms of artery conditions?
Some conditions, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, don’t have symptoms. You may not notice your arteries getting stiffer or clogging with plaque (cholesterol and fat) that collects over time.
These problems make it harder for blood to move through your arteries, and can lead to narrow or blocked arteries.
Symptoms of artery conditions include:
- Chest pain.
- Heart attack.
- Numbness or pain in your legs and arms.
- Shortness of breath.
- Belly pain.
Common tests to check the health of arteries?
These types of imaging can help your healthcare provider see your arteries:
- CT (computed tomography).
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Common treatments for arteries?
Treatments for diseases affecting arteries range from medication to surgical procedures, including:
- Lifestyle changes, as in the Care section below.
- Medicine to lower your cholesterol or blood pressure.
- Blood thinners.
- Medicines that fight inflammation, such as corticosteroids.
- Coronary artery bypass grafting.
- Surgical bypass of other blocked arteries.
- Carotid endarterectomy.
Simple lifestyle changes/tips to keep arteries healthy
Things you do to keep your heart healthy will also help your arteries. You can:
- Eat a healthy diet that doesn’t include trans fats or saturated fats.
- Get regular exercise.
- Avoid tobacco products.
- Get seven to nine hours of sleep every night (for adults).
- Cope well with stress.
- Get treatment for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
- Stay at a healthy weight.
- Limit how much alcohol you drink.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Although most people focus on their heart when they think about the cardiovascular system, arteries have an important role, too. They supply your body with oxygen, nutrients and other necessary elements that travel in your blood. When you take care of your arteries, they take care of you. Regular exercise and a diet low in saturated fat can help your arteries keep blood flowing without interruption or slowdowns. Because high blood pressure and high cholesterol usually don’t have symptoms early on, it’s important to ask your healthcare provider to check them to make sure they’re normal, and treat them if they’re not.
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