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Brachial Artery: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on September 01, 2022

The brachial artery is the chief artery supplying blood to the arm, forearm, and hand. It supplies the tissues of the upper limb with oxygen and nutrients. Two terminal brachial artery branches, the ulnar and radial arteries, supply the forearm and hand. 

The location of the brachial artery is close to the skin, and it is frequently injured. Such injuries should always be avoided, though, because the proper function of the brachial artery is crucial to the good health of your arm and hand. 

What Is the Brachial Artery?

The left and right subclavian arteries stem from the aorta and the brachiocephalic trunks, respectively. They are called the axillary arteries and pass through the shoulder region. Once in the arm, the same blood vessels are designated the brachial arteries. You have two brachial arteries, one for each arm. 

Branches of the aorta carry oxygenated blood to all parts of the body. The brachial arteries perform this function for the upper limbs.

Brachial artery anatomy makes it very useful for various medical procedures. Your doctor uses it most commonly to measure your blood pressure. They fasten a cuff around your arm and listen to the blood flow in the brachial artery at the front of the elbow. Doctors sometimes feel the pulse by locating the brachial artery on the inside of the arm. This location is also useful for feeling a baby's pulse.

Sometimes, your doctor will measure the blood pressure in your arms, as well as in your lower limbs. The ankle-brachial index is the proportion of the pressures measured at these two sites. It helps to detect peripheral artery disease. In children, a difference between the blood pressures in the upper and lower limbs can occur because of a congenital heart disease called coarctation of the aorta, and blood pressure tests can help to uncover such an illness.

The brachial artery is also used for interventional radiology procedures. Doctors pass a thin, flexible catheter into the artery at the elbow and push it into the large vessels near the heart. This allows them to detect and treat conditions like blood clots, blockages, and aneurysms in the major blood vessels, sometimes avoiding major heart surgery.

Brachial Artery Location

The brachial artery is a continuation of the axillary artery, which runs through the upper chest and armpit. The brachial artery runs down your arm from the shoulder to the cubital fossa at the front of your elbow. Here, the brachial artery ends by splitting into two branches, the ulnar and radial arteries.

The brachial artery lies on the inside of your upper arm. As it reaches the lower part of your arm, it moves near the middle of your elbow. Here, it loops in front of the elbow joint, between the tendon of the biceps muscle on the outer side and the median nerve on the inner side.

What Does the Brachial Artery Do?

The brachial artery supplies blood to the bones, muscles, joints, and other tissues of the upper limb through its various branches:

Profunda brachii artery. This is the largest branch of the brachial artery. It supplies blood to the back of your arm, including the triceps, deltoid, and other muscles. It then divides into the middle and radial collateral arteries. 

Nutrient artery to the humerus. This artery supplies blood to the humerus: i.e., the arm bone. 

Ulnar collateral arteries. These include the superior and the inferior ulnar collateral arteries. These arteries supply blood to the biceps, brachialis, and coracobrachialis muscles. They join a network of arteries around the elbow joint. 

Signs of Brachial Artery Disorders

Brachial artery disorders will reduce the blood flow to the upper limb, reducing its oxygen and nutrient supply. This can cause persistent symptoms like:

  • Muscle cramps in your arm or forearm
  • Swelling in an arm
  • Red or bluish hands or fingers
  • Pale, red, or bluish skin on your arm or forearm

If you notice any of these signs, you should talk to your doctor. Brachial artery disorders like aneurysms, blockage by clots or atherosclerosis, or peripheral artery disease can all cause such symptoms and must be treated quickly.

What Conditions Affect the Brachial Artery?

Injury. The brachial artery runs close to the skin and is frequently damaged by injuries. This artery is often injured by stab wounds, window glass injuries, or workplace accidents. Other causes include traffic accidents and gunshots. Your doctor may decide on urgent surgical repair to save the arm and hand.

Another disorder is compartment syndrome. Injuries to the arm cause swelling of the tissues, compressing the brachial artery and preventing blood flow. If they are not treated quickly, injuries can lead to Volkman ischemic contracture, resulting in a claw-like hand caused by ischemic muscle damage. Such a complication can also be caused by direct injury to the artery or the improper use of a plaster cast or tourniquet.

Peripheral artery disease. This condition commonly affects the arteries in the lower limbs, but it can also affect the brachial artery, reducing blood flow.

Blood clots. These rarely form in the brachial artery. Most clots are emboli: clots that formed elsewhere but travel through the bloodstream. Emboli stop where the artery narrows and block blood flow. Blood clots in the brachial artery most often originate in the heart or aorta.

Aneurysm. This results from a weakness in the wall of the brachial artery. The vessel bulges, forming a balloon called an aneurysm. Brachial artery aneurysms are rare and most often caused by injury. However, they can also be caused by disorders such as atherosclerosis, Kawasaki disease, infective endocarditis, or genetic disorders.

You may first notice an aneurysm as a swelling with pulsations. It's usually painless, and your doctor may conduct an ultrasound examination to make sure the bulge is not a bone sarcoma or an arteriovenous malformation, which also pulsate. 

If left untreated, aneurysms can burst and cause severe bleeding and shock.

Medical procedure complication. The brachial artery is a favored site of access to the vascular system. Many complex procedures can be performed by inserting catheters into this artery and reaching the heart and the great vessels near it. Sometimes, though, the brachial artery gets blocked by such procedures. This is a serious condition, and your doctor will treat it with surgery or balloon angioplasty to remove blood clots and establish blood flow.

How Can You Keep Your Brachial Artery Healthy?

The measures you take for broader heart and vascular health will benefit the brachial artery:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Reduce your consumption of saturated fats.
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet.
  • Avoid smoking and limit alcohol intake.
  • Have your blood pressure measured regularly and take steps to control it.

Show Sources

SOURCES: 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Facts about Coarctation of the Aorta."

Cleveland Clinic: "Brachial Artery."

Drake, R., Vogl, A, Mitchell, A. Gray's Anatomy for Students, Churchill Livingstone, 2019.

Epperson, T., Varacallo, M. StatPearls, "Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Brachial Artery," StatPearls Publishing, 2021.

Japan Medical Association Journal: "Brachial Artery Aneurysm."

Texas Heart Institute Journal: "Traumatic brachial artery injuries."

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