What Is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a condition that causes blockages in the walls of arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Artery blockages make it harder for blood to flow. This restriction can cause chest pain, heart attack and other health issues.

Atherosclerosis can be dangerous, but is highly treatable when diagnosed early enough. At Aurora Health Care, we use advanced, minimally invasive methods to reopen blocked blood vessels, so you can recover quicker.

Signs & Symptoms

Symptoms of Atherosclerosis

In its early stages, atherosclerosis has no signs or symptoms. Blockages may build up gradually and painlessly.

Atherosclerosis can affect arteries anywhere in your body. As the condition progresses, signs of atherosclerosis vary depending on which arteries are affected:

  • 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
  • In your coronary (heart) arteries: Chest pain (angina), shortness of breath, heart attack
  • In your leg arteries: Pain when walking


Causes of Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is caused when a substance called plaque forms inside your artery walls. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other materials found in your blood. This buildup causes your artery walls to narrow and harden.

Many doctors and researchers suspect that atherosclerosis may be caused by damage to the arteries. This damage might be caused by:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes, obesity or insulin resistance
  • Genetics, such as a family history of heart disease
  • High cholesterol or high triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood
  • Inflammation – sometimes caused by an infection or by a diseases, such as arthritis or lupus


Complications of Atherosclerosis

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, you might develop coronary artery disease.
  • Peripheral artery disease: When plaque forms in the arteries that supply blood to your legs, arms or pelvis, it can cause peripheral artery disease.
  • Carotid artery disease: When plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to your brain, it can slow blood flow or create a narrower passage that is more likely to be blocked by blood clots. As a result, people sometimes have a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.
  • Chronic kidney disease: When plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to your kidneys, it can cause renal artery disease.
  • Aneurysm: Anywhere in the body, atherosclerosis can cause a bulge in the wall of an artery, called an aneurysm. Aneurysms can cause life-threatening internal bleeding if they burst, although most people have no symptoms. Learn more about aneurysms.


Diagnosing Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis specifically refers to blood vessels becoming thick or stiff. Sometimes, people use these two words interchangeably.

Both atherosclerosis and arteriosclerosis produce signs indicating that you have narrowed or hardened arteries. During a physical exam, doctors might notice:

  • A whooshing sound called a bruit (pronounced broo-EE) in your artery
  • A weak or absent pulse
  • Lower blood pressure in one limb

If doctors find any signs of hardening of the arteries, they may do additional tests, such as:

  • Blood tests: Blood tests can check oxygen levels and organ function.
  • EKG: EKG, or an electrocardiogram, checks your heart rhythm and blood flow.
  • Stress test: Sometimes, people are tested while they exercise so doctors can see how their heart functions when it works hard. A stress test also can be done with medication, for people who are unable to exercise.
  • Imaging: Doctors use a variety of imaging methods to get a picture of your blood vessels and organs, so that they can choose the right treatment for you. Options include:
    • Computed tomography angiography (CTA): Angiography uses dye to show the inside of your arteries. A computed tomography (CT) scan generates images of the heart, brain and other areas to see if blood vessels have hardened or have buildup.
    • Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA): MRA is similar to a CTA but uses magnetic fields to make images of organs and blood vessels.
    • Electron beam CT scan (EBCT): This test, sometimes called Ultrafast CT, uses an electron gun to check for calcium buildup in the vessels of the heart.
    • Intravascular ultrasound: This specialized ultrasound provides a cross-sectional view of the walls of the blood vessel from inside. This test allows doctors to study the walls of the artery and find the location and extent of the plaque.
    • Nuclear imaging: Nuclear cardiology imaging gives doctors a picture of how well your heart is functioning, without invasive tests.
  • Ankle/brachial index: Doctors can compare the blood pressure in your ankle with the pressure in your arm to see how well your blood is flowing. This is one way to diagnose peripheral artery disease.

Learn more about heart and vascular diagnosis and testing at Aurora.


Care for All Stages of Atherosclerosis

When it comes to atherosclerosis, prevention is the best medicine. Many people aren’t aware that they have hardening of the arteries until they have a heart attack or stroke. But people can reduce their risk with healthy lifestyle and diet choices.

If we know you are at risk, we may recommend medications to help lower cholesterol, control blood pressure or prevent blood clots.

In some cases, you might need more direct treatment to clear arteries or prevent a blockage or blood clot. We offer every advanced treatment for atherosclerosis, including:

  • Cardiac catheterization and angioplasty: In cardiac catheterization, we thread a thin, flexible tube with a camera on the tip through a blood vessel in your arm or groin to your heart. It is done in a special room called the cardiac cath lab. If we find a blockage, we can inflate a tiny balloon to open the artery (called angioplasty) or leave a small cage (stent) in place to hold the artery open. Learn more about cardiac catheterization.
  • Bypass surgery: In a bypass surgery, your surgeon creates a new path for blood to flow around an artery that’s been blocked by plaque. Our surgeons helped to develop techniques for bypass surgery that have become the standard of care across the country. Read more about bypass surgery for atherosclerosis.

Find out more about our vascular services.

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