Atherosclerosis is hardening of a blood vessel from a buildup of plaque. Plaque is made of fatty deposits, cholesterol, and calcium. Plaque buildup causes the artery to narrow and harden.
Plaque buildup can slow and even stop blood flow. This means the tissue supplied by the artery is cut off from its blood supply. This often leads to pain or decreased function. This condition can cause a number of serious health problems. Depending on the location of the blockage, it can cause:
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A hardened artery is more likely to be damaged. Repeated damage to the inner wall of an artery causes blood clots to form. The clots are called thrombi. They can lead to a further decrease in blood flow. A thrombus sometimes becomes so large that it completely closes off the artery. It could also break into clumps, called emboli. These clumps travel through the bloodstream and lodge in smaller arteries, blocking them off. The tissue supplied by the artery receives no oxygen. It quickly dies. When this occurs in the heart, it is called a heart attack. In the brain, it is called a stroke.
Long-term atherosclerosis can also cause arteries to weaken. They may bulge under pressure. This bulge is called an aneurysm. If untreated, they 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 vessel injury can also add to the plaque buildup.
The process leading to this may begin in childhood. It takes decades before it causes serious health problems.
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 narrower. Symptoms can occur suddenly if a clot blocks a blood vessel or a large blockage breaks free.
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.
If you have symptoms, your doctor will ask you questions. These will help determine what arteries might be affected. The doctor will also need to know your full 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:
These procedures involve a thin tube called a catheter. It is inserted into an artery. They are most often done for arteries in the heart. They may be used to treat atherosclerosis elsewhere in the body as well. These procedures include:
Surgical options include:
There are a number of ways to prevent and reverse atherosclerosis. They include:
American Heart Association
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Canadian Cardiovascular Society
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Coronary artery disease. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
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Updated April 30, 2013. Accessed May 8, 2013.
Heart and stroke statistics. American Heart Association website. Available at:
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Accessed May 8, 2013.
Last reviewed March 2014 by Michael J. Fucci, DO
Last Updated: 5/2/2014
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