Atherosclerosis: Symptoms, Causes, Risk Factors, Diagnosis, Complications, Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Dr. K on 18 May 2022

Table of Contents:

  1. Atherosclerosis
  2. Atherosclerosis Signs and Symptoms
  3. Atherosclerosis Diagnosis
  4. Atherosclerosis Causes
  5. Atherosclerosis Risk Factors
  6. Plaque Attacks
  7. Atherosclerosis Complications
  8. Atherosclerosis Treatment



Atherosclerosis is a condition in which the arteries harden and narrow. It can obstruct blood flow, putting your health at risk.


Arteriosclerosis, or atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, is another name for it. It's the most common cause of heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral artery disease, all of which are referred to as cardiovascular disease.

This is a phase in the process of cardiovascular disease that you can both avoid and handle.

Atherosclerosis Signs and Symptoms


Symptoms might not appear until the artery is almost closed, or until you have a heart attack or stroke. The signs may also vary depending on whether the artery is obstructed or narrowed.


Symptoms of coronary artery disease include:


  • An irregular heartbeat known as arrhythmia.
  • Pain or pressure in your upper body such as in the chest pain, arms, neck, or jaw pain. Angina is the medical term for this condition.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations


The arteries that supply blood to your brain can cause the following symptoms:


  • Numbness or weakness in your arms or legs
  • Having difficulty talking or understanding what others are saying
  • Facial muscles that are drooping
  • Paralysis
  • Severe headache 
  • Visual problems: blurring, double vision, blindness 


The arteries in your arms, legs, and pelvis can cause the following symptoms:


  • Leg pain when walking
  • Numbness


The arteries that supply blood to your kidneys can cause the following symptoms:


  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney failure


Atherosclerosis Diagnosis


Your doctor will begin by performing a physical examination. They'll check for weak or absent pulses in your arteries.


You may require tests as follows:


  • An angiogram is a procedure in which the doctor injects dye into the arteries to make them noticeable on an X-ray.

  • Ankle-brachial index is a blood pressure comparison test for the lower leg and shoulder.

  • Blood tests to check for conditions that increase the risk of atherosclerosis, such as elevated cholesterol or blood sugar levels.

  • X-ray of the chest to look for signs of heart failure

  • Check for hardened or narrowed arteries with a CT scan or magnetic resonance angiography (MRA).

  • ECG, or electrocardiogram, is a recording of the heart's electrical activity.

  • Stress test, in which the heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing are monitored as you exercise.


Depending on your condition, you will also need to see doctors who specialise in certain areas of your body, such as cardiologists or vascular specialists.

Atherosclerosis Causes


Arteries are blood vessels that bring blood from the heart to the rest of the body. The endothelium is a thin layer of cells that lines them. It maintains the shape and smoothness of your arteries, allowing blood to flow freely.


Damage to the endothelium is the first step in the development of atherosclerosis. Among the most common causes are:


  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Inflammation, such as that caused by arthritis or lupus
  • Obesity 
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking


Plaque builds up on the inside walls of your arteries as a result of this injury.


Bad cholesterol, or LDL, reaches the artery wall as it passes a weakened endothelium. To digest the LDL, the white blood cells flood in. Cholesterol and cells build up in the artery wall over time, forming plaque.


Plaque creates a bump on the inside of your artery wall. The bump gets bigger as atherosclerosis progresses. It can become a blockage if it grows large enough.


This is a continuous mechanism that occurs in the entire body. It's not just your heart that's in danger. You're also vulnerable to stroke and other health issues.


Atherosclerosis normally doesn't manifest itself until you're in your 40s or 50s. When the narrowing becomes extreme, blood flow may be cut off, causing discomfort. Blockages can also burst at any time. Blood clots within an artery at the rupture site as a result of this.


Atherosclerosis Risk Factors


Atherosclerosis begins in childhood. Even teens, according to research, will exhibit symptoms.


If you're 40 and in good health, you have a 50% risk of developing severe atherosclerosis during your lifetime. When you get older, the risk increases. Many people over the age of 60 have a degree of atherosclerosis, but few experience symptoms.


More than 90% of all heart attacks are caused by these risk factors:


  • Obesity 
  • Diabetes
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol (more than one drink for women, one or two drinks for men, per day)
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Lack of fruits and vegetables.
  • Not exercising on a daily basis
  • Smoking tobacco 
  • Stress


Atherosclerosis-related deaths have decreased by 25% in the last three decades. This is due to improved therapies and healthier lifestyles.

Plaque Attacks


Atherosclerosis plaques may behave in a variety of ways.


They will remain in your artery wall for a long time. The plaque grows to a certain size before stopping. This plaque may never cause symptoms because it does not obstruct blood flow.


Plaque can form in the path of blood flow in a slow, regulated manner. It creates major blockages over time. The most common symptom is pain in the chest or legs when you exert yourself.


The worst-case scenario occurs when plaques rupture unexpectedly, causing blood to clot within an artery. This results in a stroke in the brain and a heart attack in the heart.


Atherosclerosis plaques are the causes for these three types of cardiovascular disease:


  • Coronary artery disease: Angina is caused by stable plaques in the heart's arteries (chest pain). Heart muscle dies as a result of sudden plaque rupture and clotting. This is the result of a heart attack.

  • Cerebrovascular disease: Strokes are caused by rupturing plaques in the arteries of the brain, which may result in irreversible brain damage. Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), which are warning signs of a stroke, can also be caused by temporary blockages in the artery. They don't damage the brain in any way.

  • Peripheral artery disease: Poor circulation can occur when the arteries in your legs narrow. You will find it difficult to walk as a result of this. In addition, wounds can take longer to heal. If you have a serious case of the disease, you could need a limb amputated (amputation).


Atherosclerosis Complications


Atherosclerosis has a number of side effects, including:


  • Aneurysms
  • Angina
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Coronary or carotid heart disease
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Stroke
  • Unusual heart rhythms


Atherosclerosis Treatment


Once a blockage has formed, it is usually permanent. Plaques may be slowed or stopped with treatment and lifestyle changes. With intensive therapy, they can also shrink slightly.


Lifestyle changes: By addressing the risk factors, you will delay or avoid atherosclerosis. That means eating well, exercising regularly, and not smoking. Even though these modifications would not eliminate blockages, they have been shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.


Medication: Atherosclerosis can be slowed, if not stopped, by drugs for high cholesterol and high blood pressure. They can also help you avoid heart attacks and strokes.


Your doctor can use more invasive techniques to open blockages from atherosclerosis or go around them:


  • Angiography and stenting: Your doctor puts a thin tube into an artery in your leg or arm to get to diseased arteries. Blockages are visible on a live X-ray screen. Angioplasty (using a catheter with a balloon tip) and stenting can often open a blocked artery. Stenting helps ease symptoms, but it does not prevent heart attacks.

  • Bypass surgery: Your doctor takes a healthy blood vessel, often from your leg or chest, and uses it to go around a blocked segment.

  • Endarterectomy: Your doctor goes into the arteries in your neck to remove plaque and restore blood flow.

  • Fibrinolytic therapy: A drug dissolves a blood clot that’s blocking your artery.

These procedures can have complications. They’re usually done on people with major symptoms or limitations.


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