Harvard Heart Letter

Clogged arteries in the gut?

Known as intestinal angina, this rare but serious condition causes severe belly pain after eating.

Cholesterol-filled plaque and clots can lurk in blood vessels throughout the body. While the arteries that supply the heart are by far the most common hiding place, arteries elsewhere in the body can also become severely narrowed by plaque.

Clogged vessels in the legs (and less commonly, the arms) can lead to limb pain during exercise, because the nearby muscles don't get enough blood to work properly. People with this problem—called peripheral artery disease, or PAD—are also at risk for narrowing in the arteries that feed the intestines.

Upper belly pain

These narrowed vessels cause intestinal angina, a condition that is more common in women, especially those who are current or former smokers. The classic symptom is pain in the upper abdomen, just above the navel, that occurs about 30 minutes after eating a regular meal, says Dr. Michael Belkin, professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. "It's very reproducible pain in that it happens every time you eat, not just some of the time," he explains. People often describe the pain as an aching sensation that lasts from one to two hours. Other possible symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.

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