Atherosclerosis is the main cause of morbidity and mortality in the Western world. Inflammation and blood flow alterations are new markers emerging as possible determinants for the development of atherosclerotic lesions. In particular, blood flow exerts a shear stress on vessel walls that alters cell physiology. Shear stress arises from the friction between two virtual layers of a fluid and is induced by the difference in motion and viscosity between these layers. Regions of the arterial tree with uniform geometry are exposed to a unidirectional and constant flow, which determines a physiologic shear stress, while arches and bifurcations are exposed to an oscillatory and disturbed flow, which determines a low shear stress. Atherosclerotic lesions develop mainly in areas of low shear stress, while those exposed to a physiologic shear stress are protected. The presence of areas of the arterial tree with different wall shear stress may explain, in part, the different localization of atherosclerotic lesions in both coronary and extracoronary arteries. The measurement of this parameter may help in identifying atherosclerotic plaques at higher risk as well as in evaluating the efficacy of different pharmacological interventions. Moreover, an altered shear stress is associated with the occurrence of both aortic and intracranial aneurysms, possibly leading to their growth and rupture. Finally, the evaluation of shear stress may be useful for predicting the risk of developing restenosis after coronary and peripheral angioplasty and for devising a coronary stent with a strut design less thrombogenic and more conducive to endothelization.
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