Atherosclerosis: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Treatment

What is Atherosclerosis (Arteriosclerosis)?

Atherosclerosis and arteriosclerosis are two terms that are often used interchangeably. But, there is a slight difference between the two and atherosclerosis is considered the type of arteriosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis is not the same as arteriosclerosis, which refers to hardening of the arteries, i.e. the arteries get thicken and lose their flexibility. Arteriosclerosis has several different causes and atherosclerosis, is a common type of arteriosclerosis. Here, we are particularly discussing Atherosclerosis health conditions.

Atherosclerosis is a critical illness that is common in age-old persons. But that doesn’t mean that youngsters and teenagers are on the safer side of this disease. This is the illness that leads to the narrowing and hardening of arteries, due to the plaque buildup on its walls. Arteries are responsible for carrying oxygen and other nutrients through blood vessels to each part of the body.

The collection of calcium, cholesterol, fats, etc. on the walls of the arteries gets converted into plaque, with time. The plaque buildup makes it difficult for the arteries to carry out their function properly. Any artery or its part may get affected by Atherosclerosis.

The disease is both preventable and treatable if diagnosed at an early stage. It may get complicated with age and if left untreated for a long time.

In this article, we will discuss about useful and essential information related to atherosclerosis such as its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, risk factors, treatment, prevention, complications, etc.

What are The Causes of Atherosclerosis?

The Endothelium, a thin layer of cells, is a component responsible to keep the arteries healthy from the inside and keep them in shape and smooth, which keeps blood flowing. As this endothelium damages, it may start causing Atherosclerosis. Some of the conditions which become the cause of Atherosclerosis are:

  • High cholesterol
  • High triglycerides, a type of lipid in your blood
  • Insulin resistance, obesity or diabetes
  • Inflammation due an unknown cause or due to diseases such as lupus, arthritis, psoriasis or inflammatory bowel disease
  • Smoking and other sources of tobacco
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

The damage to the Endothelium leads to the buildup of plaque all around the walls of arteries. The bad cholesterol moves into the artery walls when it crosses the damaged endothelium. The LDL gets digested by the WBCs. Over time, the cholesterol and WBCs get converted into plaque in the artery walls and harden, narrowing your arteries. The organs and tissues connected to these narrowed or blocked arteries then don’t get enough blood to function properly.

The plaque eventually creates a bump on the walls of the artery. The bump increases its size, as the atherosclerosis gets worse. And when the bump becomes big enough, then there are chances that it can create a blockage.

Until you are middle-age or older, atherosclerosis generally doesn’t cause symptoms. But as the narrowing of arteries becomes severe, it can block blood flow and cause pain. Blockages can also rupture abruptly and causes blood to clot inside an artery at the place of the rupture.

What are The Symptoms of Atherosclerosis?

Usually, this health condition does not show any symptoms until it gets worse i.e. the blockage gets big enough.

Generally you don’t show any symptoms of atherosclerosis until an artery is so narrowed or blocked that it can’t supply sufficient blood to your organs and tissues. Sometimes a blood clot can completely block blood flow, or can breaks apart and cause a heart attack or stroke.

For mild Atherosclerosis, you won’t be able to see any visible symptoms. But, the symptoms for moderate to severe atherosclerosis may differ depending upon which artery it is affecting.

Symptoms of Atherosclerosis in the Heart Arteries (Coronary Arteries)

Atherosclerosis in the heart arteries (coronary arteries) can lead to decreased blood supply to the heart and can cause angina and heart attack. The symptoms of a heart attack are:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Pain in the shoulders, back, neck, arms, and jaw
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness
  • Faintness
  • A sense of impending doom

Symptoms of Atherosclerosis in the Carotid Arteries

Atherosclerosis in the arteries delivering blood to the brain (carotid arteries) can lead to a stroke. Symptoms of stroke can appear suddenly and include:

  • Vision problems
  • Loss of balance
  • Temporary vision loss in one or both eyes
  • Severe headache
  • Paralysis
  • Drooping facial muscles
  • Difficulty in speaking or slurred speech
  • Weakness or numbness in legs or arms

Immediate medical attention is needed, if a person has signs of a stroke.

Symptoms of Atherosclerosis in the Renal Arteries

Atherosclerosis in the arteries which lead to kidneys can reduce blood supply to the kidneys, which can develop chronic kidney disease. Individual suffering from chronic kidney disease may experience:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Swelling of the hands and feet

Symptoms of Atherosclerosis in the Arteries of the Legs or Arms

Atherosclerosis in the arteries of the legs or arms may have signs or symptoms of peripheral artery disease, like decreased blood pressure in an affected limb or pain in the leg while walking (claudication).

In severe cases, tissue death and gangrene can occur. Peripheral artery disease also increases the risk of a heart attack or a stroke.

How is Atherosclerosis Diagnosed?

To confirm the diagnosis of atherosclerosis, your doctor may ask questions about your personal and family health history; and will perform some physical exam which includes:

  • Whooshing or bruit sound of blood which it makes while travelling through the blocked artery,
  • Slow wound healing which is an indicator of restricted blood flow,
  • Weakness of arterial wall,
  • Widening of an artery,
  • Abnormal bulging,
  • Aneurysm
  • A weakened pulse.

Your doctor may listen to your heart sounds to check for any abnormal sound and can recommend you some more tests depending on your physical examination which include:

TestConducted For
Stress Test or Exercise Tolerance TestMonitors BP, breathing, and heart rate while you exercise on a treadmill or exercise cycle
Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)Record heart’s electrical activity
Cardiac AngiogramType of chest X-ray, in which the doctor puts dye into the arteries to make them visible
CT Scan or Magnetic Resonance Angiography or Computer Tomography AngiographyTo look for narrowed or hardened arteries
Ankle-brachial IndexFor the comparison of BP in your lower leg and arm
Doppler UltrasoundGenerates an image of the artery with the help of sound waves to check for any blockage
Blood testsTo check your blood sugar levels or cholesterol levels

Depending on your condition, you may also require to consult doctors who are specialist in certain parts of your body, such as cardiologists or vascular specialists.

What are the Risk Factors For Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis generally starts at a young age, but it gets worse with age. According to the research, even teenage people have signs or symptoms of Atherosclerosis. A healthy person of or below 40 years of age has a 50% chance of developing critical Atherosclerosis. Some people have higher chances of having it and some don’t. Let’s understand who is at high risk with this illness.

Non Modifiable Risk FactorsOlder people (45 for men and 55 for women).
Family history of premature cardiovascular disease.
Medical Conditions Risk FactorsObesity
High cholesterol
High blood pressure (Hypertension)
Diabetes mellitus  
Lifestyle FactorsA diet that contains high amounts of sugar, sodium (salt), cholesterol, trans fat, and saturated fat.
Lack of physical activity and exercise.

What is the Treatment for Atherosclerosis?

The treatment of Atherosclerosis includes some lifestyle changes, medications, and surgery. The type of treatment effective for a particular case depends on the criticality of the illness.

Lifestyle ChangesAdopting lifestyle changes may reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. These are:
1) Maintenance of adequate and healthy weight.
2) Consuming a healthy diet.
3) Doing regular exercise.
4) Reducing fat or cholesterol intake.
5) Reducing or moderating alcohol consumption.
6) Avoiding or quitting smoking.  
MedicationsA doctor will prescribe medicines depending on individual’s needs, his/her overall health and other conditions. These are:
1) Statins to manage the cholesterol levels.
2) Drugs to reduce BP, blood sugar, inflammation, and blood clots.
3) Other drugs depending on the condition.
SurgerySometimes surgery is needed in an individual with severe atherosclerosis to ensure adequate blood flow in their arteries. Some of the surgery options include:
1) Surgery for removal of plaque buildup.
2) Bypass surgery to carry blood around the affected area.
3) Using a stent to broaden the blood vessels.

Prevention of Atherosclerosis

There are ways along with lifestyle changes to prevent the condition of atherosclerosis. Some of them are:

1) Consuming a diet that is healthy means low in cholesterol, saturated fats, and trans fats.

2) If you are a smoker, reduce or quit it.

3) Perform at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.

4) Avoid consuming food items containing high amounts of fat.

5) Avoid eating red meat, instead, consume fish at least twice a week.

6) Always maintain a healthy weight and live a healthy lifestyle.

7) Get the treatment of conditions that are related to atherosclerosis, like diabetes, obesity, sleep apnea, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, etc.

8) Avoid taking stress or learn to manage it.

What are The Complications of Atherosclerosis?

The complications from atherosclerosis are particularly dependent upon the artery which got affected by the atherosclerosis.

So, below in the form of table I am explaining to you the complications of atherosclerosis:

DiseaseAffected areaComplications
Coronary artery diseaseWhen the arteries near the heart narrow down.  Chest pain (angina), heart failure, and heart attack.  
Carotid artery diseaseWhen the arteries near the brain narrow down.Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA).
Peripheral artery diseaseWhen the arteries in your legs or arms narrow down.Circulation issues in legs and arms.
Decreased Sensitivity to heat and cold.
Increased risk of frostbite or burns.
Death of tissues (gangrene).
AneurysmsA condition when the bulge is formed on the artery walls.Pain and throbbing in the affected area may occur, which seeks medical urgency.
Life-threatening internal bleeding, in case aneurysm bursts.
Artery blockage at some distant point, if a blood clot within an aneurysm dislodges.
Chronic kidney diseaseWhen the arteries leading to the kidney narrow down.Kidney failure.

Before getting to any conclusion about a certain disease, make sure to consult with your healthcare provider. As there are chances that symptoms, causes, etc. may change with the reason and other factors of illness.

What is The Outlook for People With Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis can affect people of any age, but its symptoms generally appear as people get older.

You can lower the risk of atherosclerosis by following a healthy lifestyle from an early age.

With early diagnosis and treatment, individuals with atherosclerosis can live healthy and active lives.

It is a serious condition that can cause health emergencies and even death. So it is important to know your risk factors and work with your doctor to make the appropriate lifestyle changes. Your doctor will also help you get the proper medications to control your condition and prevent complications.



1) Atherosclerosis

2) Arteriosclerosis / atherosclerosis


Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only. Any information associated with this article should not be considered as a substitute for prescriptions suggested by local health care professionals.


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