What is atherosclerosis?
Before we know atherosclerosis, we will first discuss the arteries and atherosclerosis.
Arteries are the blood vessels that deliver oxygenated blood from our heart to the rest of our body. Each artery has three layers:
- The intima or the inner layer
- The media or the middle layer
- The adventitia, or the outermost layer
Healthy arteries are elastic and flexible, but over time the walls in the arteries can become thick and stiff, causing the arteries to narrow and harden. It leads to a restriction in blood flow to your tissues and organs. This condition is called arteriosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is a chronic disease. The intima is most affected by arteriosclerosis.
How is atherosclerosis different from atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is a type of atherosclerosis. It occurs when a sticky substance (plaque) builds up, mainly made up of calcium, cholesterol, and fat. More is the build-up of plaque; more is the narrowing of the artery and restriction of blood flow. Contrary to the belief that atherosclerosis is a heart problem, it can appear in arteries anywhere in the body.
Why is atherosclerosis a serious health problem?
Plaque development can start in childhood and get worse over time. The hardening and narrowing of the arteries can cause various health problems. A narrowed or blocked artery cannot supply enough oxygenated blood and nutrients to the tissue or organ. Severe blockages can lead to tissue death or infections in the affected parts of the body.
Sometimes a piece of plaque can burst and cause a clot. This clot can move with the bloodstream and get stuck anywhere in the body.
Atherosclerosis can cause serious health problems including, but not limited to:
- Carotid artery disease
- Blood clots.
- Coronary heart disease.
- Chronic kidney disease.
- Peripheral arterial disease
- Heart attack.
- Stroke or, in extreme cases, even death
Am I at risk of developing arteriosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis can occur at anyone and at any age. The condition can begin with damage to the inner lining of the artery. The deposition of plaque occurs where the damage occurred. Certain risk factors can stimulate artery damage and plaque buildup.
These risk factors include:
- Family history of heart disease
- Diabetes mellitus.
- High cholesterol.
- high blood pressure
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Older age
- Unhealthy eating habits (a diet high in cholesterol, sugar, salt, saturated and trans fat)
- Diseases like lupus, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and psoriasis
What are the most common signs and symptoms of atherosclerosis?
Mild arteriosclerosis often causes no symptoms. Symptoms don’t appear until an artery becomes narrow enough or is completely blocked. Many people don’t become aware of the condition until a medical emergency such as a heart attack or stroke occurs.
Symptoms of atherosclerosis depend on the arteries affected:
- Atherosclerosis in the heart arteries can cause chest pain or pressure (angina pectoris).
- Atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your brain can cause:
- Sudden numbness or weakness in your arms or legs
- Difficulty speaking
- Temporary loss of vision in one eye
- Sagging muscles on the face
- Atherosclerosis in the arteries in the arms and legs can cause pain and a drop in blood pressure in the affected limb.
- Atherosclerosis in the arteries that lead to your kidneys can lead to high blood pressure or kidney failure.
What tests are done to diagnose atherosclerosis?
Diagnosing atherosclerosis begins with the doctor asking about your family history and personal medical history. The doctor may use a stethoscope to check for an abnormal sound, a missing pulse, or a weak pulse during the exam.
The doctor may suggest other tests to help confirm the diagnosis:
- Blood tests – blood sugar, blood cholesterol, fat and protein levels in the blood
- Electrocardiogram or EKG – to determine the heart rhythm
- Exercise Test – When signs and symptoms are most common during physical activity
- Angiography – to locate and measure blockages. The doctor inserts a catheter into an artery in your arm or groin. A contrast agent is injected into the arteries through the catheter. The blockages, if any, show up on the X-rays.
- Ankle Arm Index – to measure blood flow in your arms or legs.
- Chest x-ray
- CT scan to see hardening and narrowing of large arteries.
- Echocardiogram (echo) to assess heart valves and chambers and to measure the pumping action.
What are the different treatment methods for atherosclerosis?
The goals of each treatment method are:
- Prevent complications related to atherosclerosis
- Lower the risk of blood clots.
- Prevent other heart or vascular diseases
- Stop plaque buildup.
- Expand or bypass the blocked arteries.
Depending on the severity, treatment for atherosclerosis may include:
- Lifestyle changes
- Surgical measures.
A doctor can prescribe the following lifestyle changes
- stop smoking
- Eat healthy food
- Do sports regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Manage blood pressure
- Check cholesterol and blood sugar levels
- Regular health checks
A doctor can prescribe medication for:
- Control blood pressure
- Lower cholesterol
- Manage blood sugar levels
- Prevent blood clots
Advanced atherosclerosis may require aggressive treatment options, such as:
- Coronary angioplasty: Through a catheter inserted into an inguinal artery, a doctor places a stent (small tube) to open narrow or blocked coronary arteries (heart arteries).
- Coronary artery bypass surgery: placement of arteries or veins from other areas of the body to bypass a narrowed artery.
- Carotid endarterectomy to remove plaque from the neck arteries to prevent stroke.
Dr. Dhananjay RS | Specialist – Cardiology – Adults, Cardiology – Pediatrics | SS Narayana Heart Center, Davangere
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