Atherosclerosis is the narrowing of an artery caused by a build-up of plaque – a waxy substance made of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances.
Arteries are blood vessels that move oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. If these arteries become narrowed by plaque, blood flow can be partially or totally blocked. This can cause serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke.
Atherosclerosis can affect any artery in the body, including the arteries that supply blood to the heart, brain, arms, legs and kidneys. Various health conditions can develop depending on which arteries are affected.
The exact cause of the buildup of plaque isn’t known, but risk factors for atherosclerosis include smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Often, you may not notice any symptoms of atherosclerosis until an artery becomes severely blocked. However, depending on where the blocked artery is in your body, you may experience varying symptoms.
Atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries, which supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart, may cause the following symptoms:
Atherosclerosis in the carotid arteries, which supply oxygen-rich blood to the brain, may cause symptoms of a stroke, includes:
Atherosclerosis in the peripheral arteries, which supply oxygen-rich blood to the pelvis, arms and legs, can cause the following symptoms:
Atherosclerosis in the renal arteries, which supply oxygen-rich blood to the kidneys, can cause the following symptoms as it progresses:
During a physical exam, your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen for an abnormal sound in the affected artery. Your doctor may also check to see whether any of your pulses are weak or absent, which can signal a blocked artery.
The following tests may also help to diagnose atherosclerosis:
Treatment options for atherosclerosis include medication, lifestyle changes, and surgery.
Lifestyle changes include:
If your case of atherosclerosis is severe, your doctor may recommend one of the following medical procedures to reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke: