Atherosclerosis Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment
Atherosclerosis is considered a heart problem as it can affect arteries anywhere in your body. It is a specific type of arteriosclerosis, in which the wall of the artery develops abnormalities, called lesions. These lesions may lead to narrowing due to the buildup of atheromatous plaque. Plaque is made up of fat, calcium, cholesterol and other substances which are found in the blood. It can cause your arteries to narrow, blocking blood flow and leading to a blood clot.
Symptoms of Atherosclerosis
You may not have any symptoms until your arteries are nearly closed or until you have a heart attack or stroke. Signs can also depend on which arteries are narrowed or blocked.
Symptoms related to coronary arteries include
- Arrhythmia, an unusual heartbeat.
- Pain or pressure in your upper body, including chest, arms, neck or jaw.
- Shortness of breath.
Symptoms related to the arteries that carries blood to the brain include
- Numbness or weakness in arms or legs.
- A hard time speaking or understanding someone who’s talking.
- Severe headache.
- Drooping facial muscles.
- Trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
Symptoms related to the arteries of arms, pelvis and legs include
- Leg pain when walking.
Symptoms related to the arteries that carries blood to kidneys include
- High blood pressure.
- Kidney failure.
Causes of Atherosclerosis
The exact cause is unknown, but atherosclerosis may start with damage or injury to the inner layer of an artery. Damage may be caused by
- High blood pressure.
- High cholesterol.
- High triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood).
- Smoking and other sources of tobacco.
- Insulin resistance.
Inflammation from other diseases like
- Lupus (inflammation of the skin).
- Inflammatory bowel disease.
Risk factors of Atherosclerosis
Risk factors that can contribute to atherosclerosis include
- Family historyPeople with a family history of heart disease or atherosclerosis are at an increased risk of developing the medical condition.
- Cardiovascular diseases.
- Smoking history.
How to Prevent Atherosclerosis?
Although some causes and risk factors, such as age and heredity, cannot be controlled, there are some ways to prevent atherosclerosis
- Eat a healthy diet, exercise, and avoid smoking.
- If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes, be sure to take your prescribed medication as directed.
Diagnosis of Atherosclerosis
Your doctor will start with a physical exam. He or she will listen to the pulse and check for weak or absent pulses. You might need tests including
- Ankle brachial index testIn this test, blood pressure cuffs are placed on the arms and ankles. A handheld ultrasound machine, or Doppler, is used to listen to blood flow and measure blood pressure. This helps the doctor determine if there is decreased blood flow to the lower legs and feet.
- Blood testThis checks the levels of certain fats, cholesterol, protein and sugar in the blood.
- CT scanX rays and computers used to provide a more detailed picture of the aorta, heart and blood vessels.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG) This test measures the electrical activity of the heart and can help determine whether parts of the heart are enlarged, overworked, or damaged. The heart's electrical currents are recorded through 12 to 15 electrodes that are attached to the arms, legs, and chest.
- Stress testingThis test is carried out during training. If a person is unable to exercise, medication is given to increase the heart rate. When combined with an ECG, this test can show changes in heart rate, rhythm or electrical activity, and blood pressure.
- UltrasoundAn ultrasound device can measure blood pressure at various points on your arms or legs, allowing your doctor to determine if you have a blockage and how fast the blood is flowing through your arteries.
Treatment for Atherosclerosis
- MedicationDrugs for high cholesterol and high blood pressure will slow down and may even halt atherosclerosis. This could also lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. Medicines like blood thinners, aspirin, beta blocker medications, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE), diuretics and other cholesterol medications are helpful in this condition.
- Maintain a better lifestyleEating healthy, doing physical exercises etc. can be effective in treating atherosclerosis. In case of severe symptoms or organ dysfunction, the following procedures may be performed.
- AngioplastyIn this procedure, the blocked artery is widened with a balloon and a stent that pushes plaque against the artery.
- Bypass surgerySurgeons can transplant healthy blood vessels from other parts of your body to bypass blockages in narrowed arteries. This allows blood to flow around blocked or narrowed arteries.
- EndarterectomySometimes fatty deposits can be surgically removed from the walls with an endarterectomy.
When to see a doctor?
If you experience symptoms of atherosclerosis like inadequate blood flow, chest pain, leg pain and numbness, then you should immediately consult your doctor.