Atherosclerosis is the term for plaque building up inside your artery walls. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other materials found in your blood. This build-up causes your artery walls to narrow and harden. Risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and genetics.

Atherosclerosis can affect any artery in your body, including those in your heart, legs, brain and kidneys. As a result, atherosclerosis can lead to a variety of disorders, depending on where it’s located:

  • Coronary artery disease –  when plaque forms in the arteries that supply blood to your heart
  • Peripheral arterial disease – when plaque forms in the arteries that supply blood to your legs, arms or pelvis
  • Stroke – when plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to your brain
  • Chronic kidney disease – when plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to your kidneys


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

  • Atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your brain: Sudden numbness or weakness in your arms or legs, difficulty speaking or slurred speech, drooping muscles in your face
  • Atherosclerosis in your coronary (heart) arteries: Chest pain (angina), shortness of breath, heart attack
  • Atherosclerosis in your leg arteries: Pain when walking


To diagnose atherosclerosis, your doctor will perform an exam and ask about any symptoms and your medical history. 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)

Services & Treatment

Prevention is the best medicine. Your doctor can help you avoid or alleviate certain risks by recommending lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise. He or she may also prescribe medication to help control blood pressure, lower cholesterol and prevent blood clots.

If your atherosclerosis is severe, surgery may be necessary. This may include: 

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We have 15 hospitals and 155 clinics throughout eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois so you can find a location that's closest to you. 

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