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The arteries that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body need to be flexible and elastic. When these arteries harden and stiffen over time due to the buildup of plaque (fats, cholesterol and other substances), it restricts blood flow through the artery — a condition called atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis can affect arteries throughout the body. Depending on the location of the affected artery, atherosclerosis can eventually lead to:
- Carotid artery disease
- Chest pain
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart attack
- Peripheral artery disease
- Visceral artery disease
Our Approach to Treating Atherosclerosis
Houston Methodist’s heart and vascular experts combine 30 years of excellence in both heart imaging and treatment and can help assess the condition of your arteries.
Our doctors can help you manage your risk by making heart healthy lifestyle changes and design a medical treatment plan that’s effective for your specific condition and tailored to your unique lifestyle needs.
If your condition is more advanced, our cardiologists, heart and vascular surgeons and imaging experts work as a team to diagnose the extent of your blockage and use the most advanced surgical techniques to open or bypass the affected artery.
How Is Atherosclerosis Diagnosed?
Your doctor may notice signs of atherosclerosis when checking your pulse or blood pressure.
If you doctor suspects atherosclerosis, he or she may recommend one or more of the following diagnostic tests:
- Echocardiogram – uses Doppler technology to show the movement of blood through the heart and blood vessels
- Cardiac stress test – detects whether your heart is getting enough blood
- Cardiac catheterization – uses a thin, small tube called a catheter to check blood flow and blood pressure
- CT scan – provides a closer view of your blood vessels
- Arterial duplex ultrasound – uses ultrasound technology to evaluate blood vessels other than those of the heart
- Physiologic study with waveforms and indices – a noninvasive method of evaluating blood flow in your extremities
Your doctor may also order blood tests and further blood pressure monitoring to diagnose atherosclerosis.
What Are the Symptoms of Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis symptoms can vary depending on which artery or arteries are damaged and restricting blood flow.
- If arteries leading to your heart muscle are affected, symptoms include chest pain, tightness or pressure.
- If arteries leading to your brain are affected, you may experience symptoms of stroke — including numb or weak legs or arms, voice impairments, vision loss and drooping of facial muscles
- If arteries in your arms and legs are affected, symptoms include limb numbness and weakness and pain while walking, as well as ulcerations and gangrene in very advanced stages
It’s important to mention these symptoms to your doctor, as early diagnosis of atherosclerosis can help prevent the condition from worsening and leading to a serious heart or vascular problem.
What Causes Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis develops slowly over time. The cause of this condition is largely unknown, but it’s thought to occur after damage to your arteries.
Once the inner wall of an artery is damaged, plaque (fatty deposits made up of cholesterol and other substances) builds up at the injury site — causing hardening and eventually narrowing of the artery. As a result, blood flow through the artery is reduced.
Over time, plaque can rupture and ultimately lead to the formation of blood clots, which can cause heart attack or block blood flow to other organs.
Damage to your arteries can be caused and exacerbated by high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, smoking and more.
Risk factors for atherosclerosis include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- High cholesterol
- Family history of heart issues, arterial disease, stroke or other problems
- Not being active
- Not eating healthy
- Smoking and tobacco use
To prevent atherosclerosis, it’s important to develop and maintain heart healthy behaviors, including adopting a heart healthy diet, staying active and stopping smoking if you smoke.
How Is Atherosclerosis Treated?
If you are diagnosed with atherosclerosis, your doctor will recommend making heart healthy lifestyle changes to prevent your condition from worsening, particularly eating healthy, exercising and stopping smoking (if you smoke).
In some cases, your doctor may prescribe medications that can help slow progression of your condition. These include medications that:
- Lower your cholesterol
- Reduce the risk of blood clot formation
- Lower your blood pressure
- Reduce chest pain
- Lower the risk of heart attack
- Reduce pain in limbs after exercising
If your blockage is severe, your doctor may recommend one of the following surgical procedures:
- Angioplasty – uses a thin, small tube called a catheter to open the artery, typically with a stent being placed to help keep the artery open
- Atherectomy – a catheter-based technique used to open a blocked blood vessel by removing the build-up
- Bypass surgery – the affected section of artery is bypassed by grafting a vessel from another part of your body around the blockage
- Endarterectomy – surgical removal of plaque from the section of narrowed artery
- Stenting – placing a small mesh tube to keep a cleared blood vessel open