Atherosclerosis is an inflammation process in the blood vessels due to a build up of plaque. The build up is made of fatty deposits, cholesterol, and calcium. Over time, the plaque and inflammation can narrow and harden the arteries.
Plaque buildup can slow and even stop blood flow. This can lead to pain or problems with tissue that depend on the blood flow. Depending on the location of the blockage, atherosclerosis can lead to:
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Plaque can weaken the inner walls of the arteries. If the wall tears, a blood clot can form. The blood clot can further slow or even stop the flow of blood through the blood vessel. Long-term atherosclerosis can also cause arteries to weaken and bulge. This bulge is called an aneurysm. If untreated, it can rupture and bleed.
Atherosclerosis is caused by plaque. Plaque is created by high levels of cholesterol and fat in the blood. Scar tissue and calcium from previous injury can also add to the plaque buildup.
Men, especially those over 45 years of age, are more likely to have this condition. Atherosclerosis is more common in women over 55 years of age. Factors that increase your chance of getting atherosclerosis include:
Early atherosclerosis does not have any symptoms. Symptoms may begin to appear as the arteries become harder and narrow. A blockage from a clot can cause sudden symptoms.
Symptoms depend on which arteries are affected. For example:
Most people are diagnosed after they develop symptoms. However, people can be screened and treated for risk factors.
You will be asked questions to help determine what arteries might be affected. You will also be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Tests will depend on which arteries may be involved. Many of these tests detect problems with the tissue that is not getting enough blood.
Tests that evaluate the atherosclerotic arteries are:
An important part of treatment is reducing risk factors. To do so, see the steps in the prevention section below. Treatment depends on the area of the body most affected.
Treatment may include:
A thin tube called a catheter is inserted into an artery and passed to the diseased area. Tools are passed through this catheter to repair blood vessels. It allows the doctor to access blood vessels throughout the body without having to use large incisions. Procedures that can be done through a catheter include:
Surgical options include:
The following may help to prevent and reverse atherosclerosis:
American Heart Association
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Canadian Cardiovascular Society
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Coronary artery disease. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116156/Coronary-artery-disease-CAD. Updated September 23, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2016.
Heart and stroke statistics. American Heart Association website. Available at:
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Accessed March 1, 2016.
Last reviewed March 2017 by
EBSCO Medical Review BoardMichael J. Fucci, DO, FACC
Last Updated: 2/2/2018
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