The body relies on blood vessels to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the organs and tissues. When a person has atherosclerosis, the optimum functionality of this delivery system is disturbed. This condition occurs when blood vessels thicken and become stiff. Because of this, the condition is sometimes referred to as “hardening of the arteries” because the arteries actually become hard, impeding the delivery of oxygen to other parts of the body.
How Does Atherosclerosis Develop?
The condition develops gradually, even beginning as early as childhood. It develops as fats, LDL cholesterol, and various other substances build up on artery walls. The buildup causes the arteries to stiffen and narrow, which restricts blood flow, increasing the risk of blood clots, heart disease, and heart emergencies. Fortunately, atherosclerosis is treatable and may even be preventable.
What Are the Causes of Atherosclerosis?
The condition develops when the inner layer of an artery is injured or damaged, typically due to high blood cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, high levels of triglycerides, inflammation, obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, and smoking. The condition can occur in any artery. Once the artery becomes damaged, substances like cholesterol and blood cells clump at the site, causing the buildup, which grows until it becomes detrimental enough to be diagnosed.
Are There Risk Factors for Atherosclerosis?
Several factors can increase your risk of developing it. Sometimes aging is in itself a risk factor for this condition. Other risk factors include poor diet, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, untreated diabetes, smoking and other forms of tobacco use, genetics, and a lack of fitness. Additionally, people with these issues should talk to a doctor about reducing the likelihood of atherosclerosis.
Overview of Atherosclerosis Symptoms
Usually, mild cases do not produce any noticeable symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they vary depending on where the build-up is forming and if it triggers a blood clot or breaks apart. If the plaque breaks apart or a burst occurs, this could trigger a stroke or heart attack. Sometimes, this is the first symptom alerting a person of a problem. Depending on where the build-up is forming, one may experience symptoms such as chest pressure or pain, numbness in extremities like the arms or legs, slurred speech, leg pain, or high blood pressure.
The condition can trigger serious and sometimes fatal health complications, including an aneurysm, a bulge in the wall of an artery. If an aneurysm bursts, life-threatening internal bleeding can follow. Other serious complications associated with this condition include the development of coronary artery disease (a narrowing of the arteries near the heart), carotid artery disease (associated with arteries near the brain), peripheral artery disease (which affects the arteries in the arms and legs), and even chronic kidney disease (if atherosclerosis affects the arteries that lead to the kidneys).
Initially, a doctor may suspect atherosclerosis based on findings during a routine physical, such as a weak pulse or hearing a telltale “whooshing” sound in an artery when listening through a stethoscope. After that, the doctor will order various diagnostic tests to confirm atherosclerosis, such as blood tests, an ankle-brachial index test, doppler ultrasound, electrocardiogram, a stress test, or a cardiac catheterization and angiogram.
Medicinal Treatment for Atherosclerosis
If a doctor determines their patient has atherosclerosis, he or she may prescribe medication. Depending on the medication, it can slow the continued development of the condition and possibly even reverse it. The type of medication will likely depend on blood test results and where the build-up is. Antiplatelet medications, cholesterol-reducing medications, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors can all treat the symptoms and reduce complications.
Surgical Interventions for Atherosclerosis
Depending on the severity and where it is in the body, doctors may recommend surgical intervention. Severe symptoms or blockages can be alleviated with an angioplasty and stent placement, endarterectomy, fibrinolytic therapy, or bypass surgery. The healthcare provider will likely direct the patient to a specialist for these procedures.
Those who prefer not to take prescribed medications for mild atherosclerosis can speak to a doctor about alternative treatments that can help manage the condition. Alternative medications and dietary choices can reduce some of the risk factors that trigger plaque buildup such as: garlic, green tea, alpha-linolenic acid, cod liver oil, barley, folic acid, fish oil, cocoa, oat bran, and vitamin C.
Certain lifestyle changes may help people reduce their risk. For example, smokers should commit to stopping. Adopting a healthy diet that includes low-cholesterol foods is another viable way to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. Additionally, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising on a routine basis are also important factors to consider.