Atherosclerosis is an arterial condition in which a fatty substance called plaque (or atheroma) builds up in the walls of your arteries. When that happens, your arteries ‘harden,’ making it harder for blood to flow from your heart to other parts of your body.
At first, you probably won’t notice any symptoms of atherosclerosis. But as the plaque keeps building, you can develop serious complications. That’s why prevention and early diagnosis are critical for your cardiovascular health.
Without treatment, hardened arteries can lead to:
- Peripheral arterial disease (PAD). Blockages mean your leg muscles aren’t getting enough oxygen-rich blood. Initial symptoms include leg cramps, especially when you walk or exercise.
- Angina. Chest pain caused by the insufficient blood supply to your heart muscle.
- Coronary heart disease.
- Heart attack or stroke.
Symptom of Atherosclerosis
Initially, you won’t notice any symptoms. But over time, you may develop:
- Leg cramps
- Chest pain
- Fatigue or confusion, due to lack of blood flow
- Muscle weakness or difficulty breathing
- Limb pain at the site of a blocked artery
Anyone can develop this condition. But certain factors increase your risk for arterial disease. If you have a family history of heart disease, or you carry extra weight, you’re more likely to develop atherosclerosis. Having diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol, or even drinking too much alcohol can also raise your risk.
Sadly, even your race can be a risk factor, since research suggests that African and Caribbean Americans, as well as people of South Asian descent, are at higher risk for diseases that contribute to atherosclerosis risk. Finally, aging, skipping exercise, following an unhealthy diet and smoking or using tobacco can all increase your risk as well.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Along with your medical history, you may need blood tests, ultrasounds, CT scans, angiograms and/or an ECG to diagnose plaque in your arteries. If you have atherosclerosis, treatments will focus on slowing progression and minimizing your symptoms. Unfortunately, once you have plaque in your arteries, we can’t get rid of it. But we can keep new plaque from forming, or keep your existing plaque from blocking your blood flow.
To do that, we can make diet and lifestyle changes. Procedures like angioplasty, stenting or atherectomy can help restore blood flow. A stent is a small device that we insert into your narrowed artery, helping improve your blood flow. Usually, stents are made of plastic or metal, and they can be made in many shapes and sizes to fit your needs. Once implanted, the stent helps support the walls of your arteries, so that they remain open, allowing blood to flow through them. After we implant a stent, it expands until it presses against your inner artery wall, preventing a future collapse. It can also keep cholesterol and plaque from building up again in the area where we’ve implanted the stent. While these tools are very effective for treating PAD, in some cases, you may also need medications to control contributing risks such as cholesterol, blood pressure or diabetes.
Living a healthy lifestyle is one of the best ways to prevent arterial disease. Try eating healthier foods, staying active with regular exercise and working to reach or maintain your ideal weight. Limit alcohol intake and quit smoking to help reduce your risk. Finally, it’s important to take all your medications as prescribed by a healthcare provider in order to protect your arterial health and prevent complications.
Of course, it’s hard to know when to make lifestyle changes if you don’t know your arterial disease risk. Want to stay on top of your health and prevent complications? Schedule an arterial consult with our Houston area PAD specialists. We can diagnose your disease risk and take early measures to prevent atherosclerosis or other forms of cardiovascular disease.