Atherosclerosis

Treating Cardiovascular Diseases in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois

Atherosclerosis (ath-er-o-skler-O-sis) is a disease that occurs when plaque builds up inside your artery walls. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other materials found in the blood.

Your arteries carry oxygen-rich blood to your heart and other parts of your body. (Veins carry it back to the heart.) When plaque builds up in your arteries, it causes them to narrow and harden. That’s why atherosclerosis is also known as hardening of the arteries.

Atherosclerosis can affect any arteries in your body, including arteries in your heart, legs, brain, kidneys and other organs. As a result, atherosclerosis can lead to many other disorders, depending on where it’s located:

  • Coronary artery disease occurs when plaque forms in the arteries that supply blood to your heart.
  • Peripheral arterial disease occurs when plaque forms in the arteries that supply blood to your legs, arms or pelvis.
  • A stroke can occur when plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to your brain.

Chronic kidney disease can occur when plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to your kidneys.

Signs and Symptoms of Atherosclerosis

In its early stages, atherosclerosis has no signs or symptoms. As the condition progresses, signs of atherosclerosis vary depending on which arteries are affected. For example:

  • Atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your brain may causesudden numbness or weakness in your arms or legs, difficulty speaking or slurred speech, or drooping muscles in your face. These are signs of a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which may progress to a stroke if left untreated.
  • Atherosclerosis in your coronary (heart) arteries may causesymptoms of coronary artery disease, such as chest pain (angina) or shortness of breath or lead to a heart attack.
  • Atherosclerosis in your leg arteries may cause symptoms of peripheral artery disease, such as pain when walking.

Causes of Atherosclerosis

The exact causes of atherosclerosis isn’t well understood. It is thought that damage to the lining of the artery wall triggers this condition. In an attempt to heal itself, the lining releases chemicals that make the artery walls stickier, causing fat, cholesterol, calcium and other materialsto cling to them. Over time, these materials accumulate to form plaque which causes the arteries to narrow and harden.

Plaque is hard on the outside and soft and mushy on the inside. Sometimes the hard surface cracks or tears, exposing the soft, fatty substance underneath. When this happens, blood clots form around the plaque, narrowing the arteries even more. Sometimes an artery becomes completely blocked by plaque buildup or a blood clot.

Risks for Atherosclerosis

There are many risk factors that increase your chances of developing atherosclerosis. The following are unavoidable risks:

  • Family history of atherosclerosis (having a father or brother who developed complications of atherosclerosis before age 55 or a mother or sister who developed complications before age 65)
  • Increasing age (being 45 and older for men; 55 and older for women)

By living a healthy lifestyle and taking certain medications, you can successfully avoid or manage the following risks:

  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Uncontrolled diabetes
  • Being overweight, obese, or having an increased waist circumference (greater than 40 inches in men and 35 inches in women)
  • Physical inactivity

Diagnosing Atherosclerosis

Most people are diagnosed with atherosclerosis after symptoms appear. If you think you have symptoms of atherosclerosis or the risk factors associated with this condition, talk to your doctor. Early diagnosis and treatment can stop atherosclerosis from progressing—and prevent a medical emergency.

When diagnosing this condition, your doctor will ask about your signs and symptoms, medical history and risks, and perform a physical exam. Depending on your results, he or she may also prescribe the following diagnostic tests:

  • Blood tests 
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) 
  • Stress test 
  • Nuclear scanning
  • Echocardiogram
  • Coronary angioplasty
  • Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA)
  • Electron beam CT scan (EBCT) 
  • Computed tomography angiography (CTA) 

Treating atherosclerosis

It is important to remember that prevention (link) is the best medicine. Your doctor can help you avoid or alleviate certain risks by recommending lifestyle changes, such as:

  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Get more exercise
  • Quit smoking

When that’s not enough, he or she may also recommend any of the following medications:

  • Drugs to control blood pressure
  • Drugs to improve blood flow through narrowed arteries
  • Drugs to interfere with the formation of blood clots
  • Drugs to lower cholesterol

If your atherosclerosis is severe, your doctor may perform any of the following procedures to restore and improve blood flow in your arteries:

Leading Midwest Cardiology Program

Aurorais known for providing one of the best cardiology programs in the United States. Our multidisciplinary approach to care includes access to outstanding doctors and services for preventing, diagnosing and treating heart disease. We also offer a full-service rehab program to ensure your optimal recovery.

Our doctors are conveniently located throughout eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. To find a doctor or cardiologist near you, we invite you to use our online directory. For assistance or to get a second opinion, please call 888-649-6892.