Atherosclerosis is a condition which causes the arteries to narrow and harden. This leads to your arteries getting blocked, putting your blood flow at risk. It is usually caused by the build-up of fats, cholesterol and other such substances in and on your artery walls.
Atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis, though the terms are used interchangeably sometimes. The plaque can burst, which can trigger a blood clot. Atherosclerosis is often considered a heart problem, but it might affect any part of your body. This condition is preventable as well as treatable.
Plaque buildup as well as subsequent hardening of the arteries leads to the blood flow in the arteries being restricted, which prevents your organs and tissues from getting the required oxygenated blood. Some common causes of this condition include:
- High Cholesterol- Cholesterol is a waxy, yellow substance that is found naturally in the body as well as in some foods you consume. When the cholesterol level in your blood is too high, it can lead to the clogging of your arteries. It becomes a hard plaque that restricts or blocks blood circulation to your heart as well as other organs.
- Diet- It is also quite important to eat a healthy diet. An overall healthy diet should include a wide range of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy products with low fat, nuts and legumes, etc.
- Aging- As one ages, their heart and blood vessels work harder to pump as well as receive blood. Your arteries may weaken and become less elastic, which makes them more susceptible to plaque buildup.
Mild atherosclerosis doesn’t usually have any symptoms. Usually, symptoms occur only after an artery is so narrowed or clogged that it is unable to supply adequate blood to the organs and tissues. Sometimes a blood clot can completely block blood flow or it might even break apart and can trigger a heart attack or stroke. Symptoms depend on which part of your body is affected.
- If you have atherosclerosis in your heart arteries, you might show symptoms such as chest pain or pressure.
- If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries which lead to your brain, you might have signs and symptoms such as sudden numbness or weakness in your arms and legs, difficulty in speaking, temporary loss of vision in an eye or your face muscles drooping. These signal a transient ischemic attack and if it is left untreated, it might lead to a stroke.
- If you are having atherosclerosis in the arteries in your arms and legs, you might show symptoms of peripheral artery disease, like leg pain when walking.
- If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries which lead to your kidney, you can develop high blood pressure or maybe even kidney failure.
Your doctor first performs a physical exam to check for signs of atherosclerosis. They will check if your pulse is weakened or if there are any signs of an aneurysm, which is an abnormal or widening of an artery due to weakness of the arterial wall, slow wound healing, which can indicate a restricted blood flow.
A cardiologist might listen to your heart to check if there are any abnormal sounds. They will be listening for a whooshing noise, which can indicate that an artery is blocked. Your doctor will be ordering more tests if they feel you might have atherosclerosis.
These tests can include:
- A blood test to check the cholesterol levels in the body
- A Doppler ultrasound, which makes the use of sound waves for creating a picture of the artery that shows if there is a blockage
- An ankle-brachial index, which can look for blockage in your arms or legs by comparing the blood pressure in each of your limbs
- A cardiac angiogram, a type of chest X-ray, which is taken after they inject your heart arteries with radioactive dye
- A stress test, also termed as an exercise tolerance test, which monitors your blood pressure as well as your heart rate, while you exercise on a treadmill or stationary bicycle
- A magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) or a computed tomography angiography (CTA) in order to create pictures of your body’s large arteries.
- An electrocardiogram, which can measure your heart’s electrical activity in your heart to look up to any areas of decreased blood flow.
There are various drugs that can slow or reverse the effects of atherosclerosis. Some common choices are:
- Cholesterol medications- These kinds of medications are used to lower the low-density lipoprotein cholesterol aggressively, as this may stop or even reverse the buildup of fatty deposits in your arteries. Boosting your high-density lipoprotein cholesterol can however help. Your doctor will guide you in choosing from a range of cholesterol medications.
- Beta-blocker medications- These kinds of medications are commonly used for coronary artery disease. They help in lowering your heart rate as well as your blood pressure and reduces the demand on your heart as well as relieving symptoms of chest pain. They can also reduce your risk of having a heart attack or heart rhythm problems.
- Anti-platelet medications- Your doctor might prescribe you anti-platelet medications like aspirin, to help reduce the likelihood that platelets will clump in narrowed arteries and form a blood clot which will even lead to further blockage.
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors- These medications might help to slow the progression of atherosclerosis by lowering your blood pressure and they also produce other beneficial effects on your heart arteries. ACE inhibitors can help in reducing the risk of recurrent heart attack as well.
- Calcium channel blockers- These medications can lower blood pressure can also be used for treating angina.
- Water pills (diuretics)- Diuretics can help in lowering blood pressure, as high blood pressure increases the risk of having atherosclerosis.
- Other medications: Your doctor might be suggesting some other medications to control specific risk factors for atherosclerosis, like diabetes.
Aggressive treatment can be needed sometimes to treat atherosclerosis. If you are having severe symptoms or a blockage that threatens muscle or skin tissue survival, you might be a candidate for a surgical procedure such as:
- Angioplasty and stent placement- Your doctor inserts a long and thin tube called a catheter into your blocked or narrowed part of the artery. A second catheter with a deflated balloon on its tip is next passed through the catheter to the narrowed area. Next, the balloon is inflated, compressing the deposits against the artery walls. To help in keeping the artery open, a mesh tube is usually left in the artery.
- Endarterectomy- Sometimes fatty deposits need to be surgically removed from the walls of a narrowed artery. When this procedure is performed on arteries in your neck (the carotid arteries), it’s termed as carotid endarterectomy.
- Fibrinolytic therapy- If you have an artery that is blocked by a blood clot, your doctor might use a clot-dissolving drug in order to break it apart.
- Bypass surgery- Your doctor may create a graft bypass for which he can use a vessel from a different part of your body or a tube, which is made of synthetic fabric. This can allow the blood to flow around the blocked or narrowed artery.
Hardening of the arteries can occur over time. There are quite a few factors which can increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis, which includes:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Smoking and using any such tobacco
- Having a family history with heart disease
- An unhealthy diet
- Lack of regular exercise
Depending on which arteries are blocked, atherosclerosis can lead to several complications, which can include:
- Coronary artery disease- When atherosclerosis narrows the arteries which are close to your heart, it can lead you to coronary artery disease. This can cause chest pain or a heart attack or even heart failure.
- Carotid artery disease- When atherosclerosis narrows your arteries close to your brain, this might lead you to develop carotid artery disease, which can lead to a transient ischemic attack or even a stroke.
- Peripheral artery disease- When atherosclerosis narrows down your arteries in the arms or legs, this can lead you to develop certain problems which are termed as peripheral artery disease. This can make you less sensitive to heat and cold and can increase your chances of burns or frostbites. Although it is rare, in some cases, poor circulation in your arms and legs can also cause tissue death.
- Chronic kidney disease- Atherosclerosis can also cause the arteries which lead to your kidneys to narrow, which will prevent oxygenated blood from reaching them. This can affect your kidney function over time keeping waste from exiting your system.
- Aneurysms- Atherosclerosis can also lead to aneurysms, which is a serious complication that can occur anywhere in the body. An aneurysm is basically a bulge in the wall of the artery. Many people with aneurysms usually show no symptoms. If pain and throbbing in the area of aneurysm occur, it is declared as a medical emergency. If an aneurysm bursts, it can cause life-threatening internal bleeding.
Preventive measures can also help one against atherosclerosis. Quitting smoking, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight, eating healthy food can help a great deal