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Am J Surg. 1998 Aug;176(2):140-3.

Compensatory arterial enlargement is a common pathobiologic response in early atherosclerosis.

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  • 1Division of Vascular Surgery, Loyola University Medical Center, Maywood, Illinois 60153-3304, USA.



Human arteries are dynamic conduits that respond to different stimuli by remodeling their structure and size. Arterial dilatation has been shown to occur in moderate and advanced atherosclerosis in studies that evaluated only one artery, either coronary, carotid, or superficial femoral artery (SFA). The purpose of this study was to quantify and compare compensatory arterial enlargement throughout the peripheral vascular system in early atherosclerosis.


Seventy-two patients (40 male, 32 female, mean age 67 +/- 12 years) underwent transcutaneous B-mode ultrasound imaging during routine examinations. Thirty-nine carotid, 19 aorta, 19 iliac, 23 common femoral (CFA), 21 SFA, and 23 popliteal arteries were longitudinally imaged. Eight healthy volunteers (6 male, 2 female, mean age 27 +/- 2.2 years) had the same arteries evaluated (n = 48). Internal diameter (ID) and external diameter (ED) were measured in disease-free areas and in paired adjacent areas exhibiting increased intima-media thickening (IMT) and small atherosclerotic plaques. The percent change in ID, ED, IMT, and plaque thickness were calculated.


There was no observed change in ID or ED in all arteries of the healthy volunteers. When compared with normal vessel segments, all arteries demonstrated a marked decrease in ID and increase in ED in areas of small, hemodynamically insignificant plaque. The aorta had a 6.00% +/- 1.92% increase in ED, which was significantly less than the percent increase in ED observed in carotid (8.14 +/- 4.5%. P = 0.05), CFA (9.73 +/- 3.54%, P = 0.0001), SFA (9.15 +/- 4.25%, P = 0.005), and popliteal arteries (9.67 +/- 4.34, P = 0.002). In all arteries there was a strong correlation between plaque thickness and percent change in ED with the best correlation observed in the popliteal artery (R2 = 0.823, P < 0.0001). IMT was significantly increased in all normal vessel segments of the patients when compared with the healthy volunteers (P < 0.001).


All peripheral arteries dilate in response to intima-media thickening and early atherosclerotic plaque formation. This adaptive response occurs at the site of the lesion to preserve luminal area. The percent change in ED is strongly related to plaque thickness and is greatest in the more distal arteries.

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