Atherosclerosis, otherwise known as hardening of the arteries, clogged arteries, or blocked arteries, is a buildup of plaque in the blood vessels. Plaque is a waxy, sticky substance made up of cholesterol, fat, calcium, and other matter that is found in the blood. Plaque can build up on the walls of the arteries, making them stiff and narrow, which limits blood flow and reduces the oxygen your organs and other body parts receive.
Atherosclerosis can lead to potentially deadly events, like heart attack and stroke. The hardening of the arteries may also lead to development of diseases of the arteries, such as coronary heart disease, microvascular artery disease, carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease, and chronic kidney disease.
Causes of and risks for atherosclerosis
Experts do not know the exact cause of atherosclerosis, but they do know it develops faster as people age. There is evidence that it begins when the inner layers of the arteries are damaged.
Factors that can damage the arteries include:
- Having high blood levels of certain fats and cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- High amounts of sugar in the blood
When plaque builds up on the artery walls, the plaque can rupture. This encourages blood platelets to stick to the spot where the rupture took place, forming blood clots that narrow the arteries even more.
Prevention: How to reduce your risk of atherosclerosis
There are some risk factors you can’t control, like your age and your heredity. However, you can take steps to control your risk, which may help prevent atherosclerosis or delay its onset.
Here are some lifestyle changes that you can make to help prevent it:
- Choose a diet full of heart-healthy foods, like a variety of fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat or fat-free milk and dairy. You should also limit sodium, added or processed sugar, solid fats, and refined grains like white bread and pasta.
- Get plenty of physical activity. The more exercise you get, the healthier you are likely to be. However, you should consult with your doctor before starting any new exercise routine to make sure what you’re doing is safe for you.
- If you smoke, quit. Smoking has many negative health effects, including damaging the arteries.
- Get to and maintain a healthy weight. Carrying extra weight can increase your risk for many health conditions, including heart disease.
- Talk to your doctor about what else you can do to help prevent atherosclerosis.
Medications may also help you prevent atherosclerosis or worsening of the condition. Talk to your doctor about whether medication is a good option for you.
Symptoms of atherosclerosis
Most people with atherosclerosis don’t have any symptoms – at least not until their arteries are severely narrowed or fully blocked. Those who do have symptoms may experience the following:
- Angina – chest pain or discomfort when the heart doesn’t get enough blood (pain may also radiate to other areas of the body like the arms, neck, back, and jaw)
- Shortness of breath
- Arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms)
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Stroke symptoms
- Sudden weakness
- Numbness or paralysis in one or more part of the body (most likely to be on one side of the body)
- Difficulty speaking
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty walking
- Sudden weakness
- Losing consciousness
- Symptoms of peripheral artery disease
- Symptoms of chronic kidney disease
- Changes in urination
- Loss of appetite
- Swelling of the hands or feet
- Numbness or itchiness
- Difficulty concentrating
What are my treatment options?
If you have atherosclerosis, your treatment plan will depend upon several factors, including your age, the severity of your condition, the symptoms you’re experiencing, and the location of your arterial narrowing. Treatment options range from making lifestyle changes to taking medications to having medical procedures or surgery.
- Cholesterol lowering medications can be used to lower your “bad” cholesterol (LDL) with the goal of slowing or stopping plaque buildup and even reversing it.
- Beta blockers are often used to treat coronary artery disease by lowering heart rate and blood pressure, which reduces the work your heart has to do. This can help relieve angina. Beta blockers also reduce the risk of heart attacks and some arrhythmias.
- Anti-platelet medication can help keep blood platelets from clumping in the arteries.
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors) help reduce blood pressure, which helps slow the progression of atherosclerosis. They can also reduce the risk of recurrent heart attacks.
- Calcium channel blockers lower blood pressure and may be used to treat angina.
- Diuretics lower blood pressure and help reduce the risk of atherosclerosis.
- Other medications may be taken to manage related conditions, such as medicine to control diabetes, or to treat symptoms of atherosclerosis.
When medication and lifestyle changes are not enough to treat atherosclerosis and your condition is severe, you may need surgery to open narrowed arteries. There are a few surgeries and surgical procedures used.
- Angioplasty with stent placement involves compressing plaque deposits against the affected artery wall and inserting a stent into the artery to help keep it open.
- Endarterectomy is removing plaque deposits from the arterial walls.
- Carotid endarterectomy is an endarterectomy done on a carotid artery in the neck.
- Bypass surgery may be done to divert blood flow around a blocked artery.
- Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) / angioplasty is used to open narrowed or blocked arteries in the heart. It can improve blood flow and reduce chest pain. Stents may also be placed in the arteries to keep them open.
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Get a referral to Beaumont
If you have any symptoms of atherosclerosis, you should talk to your doctor about getting screened. But even if you do not have any symptoms, you may still want to have a conversation with your doctor. Talk about your family history and your personal risk factors for heart disease. Talk about your lifestyle, and ask any questions you might have about what you can do to reduce your risk.
For a referral to a Beaumont doctor, call 800-633-7377.