Known as the narrowing or hardening of the arteries, Atherosclerosis slowly and soundlessly blocks your arteries inhibiting blood flow. This disease causes heart attacks, peripheral vascular disease, and strokes. These conditions combined are also known as cardiovascular diseases.

It occurs over time as the blood carries nutrients from the heart to other parts of the body making the arteries stiff and thick. Eventually, the hardening restricts blood flow to vital tissues and organs. This is also commonly known as hardening of the arteries.

Recommended Dallas-Fort Worth Atherosclerosis Doctors

Vascular Surgery

Arash Shirvani, MD

Dr. Shirvani is a vascular surgery doctor serving the DFW metroplex. If you are having any pain or issues related to your veins or arteries contact his office for a consultation.

Arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis are used interchangeably, but atherosclerosis is actually a specific kind of arteriosclerosis. It refers to fat build-up or plaque on the artery walls. When the plaque bursts, it signals the body that it has an injury, triggering the formation of a blood clot. Generally, it’s considered a heart problem but affects arteries all over the body.  Luckily, atherosclerosis is treatable and preventable.

The plaque can also break off and travel through the bloodstream. The lining of the plaque could also rupture allowing cholesterol and other materials to spill into the blood. When this happens, a clot can form, blocking the blood flow to other parts of the body. It may prevent the blood flow to another organ causing it to function improperly.

Causes of Atherosclerosis

Arteries are lined with a thin layer of cells known as endothelium. The job of these cells is to keep the inside walls of the arteries smooth and toned. This helps keep the blood flowing throughout them.

Atherosclerosis damages the endothelium leading to the formation of plaque. It’s caused by smoking, other tobacco sources, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, inflammation caused by diseases like lupus or arthritis, and high blood pressure.

When LDL, or bad cholesterol, passes the damaged cells, cholesterol enters the artery wall. The lump grows larger as atherosclerosis progresses. Eventually, it creates a blockage when it becomes large enough. This process occurs everywhere in the body and puts you at risk for strokes, heart attacks, and other serious health issues. When blockages rupture suddenly, they cause the blood to clot within the artery at the rupture site.

How Plaque behaves in Arteries

There are several ways that plaques behave in the body. They can remain inside the artery wall. If they stay there, they grow to a certain size and then stop. It may not ever cause symptoms because the plaque doesn’t block the flow of blood.

Plaques also grow slowly in a controlled manner into the blood flow’s pathway. This can eventually lead to large blockages that cause pain in your legs or chest when you physically exert yourself.

The worst-case scenario is the rupturing of plaques. This lets the blood clot inside the artery. If it happens in the brain, you’ll have a stroke; if it happens in the heart, you’ll have a heart attack.

Atherosclerosis Plaques Cause Several Complications

  1. Cerebrovascular disease- Plaques that rupture in arteries in the brain cause strokes that can potentially permanently damage the brain. Temporary blockages can also cause TIAs or transient ischemic attacks. These are the warning signs of a stroke, but there is no injury to the brain during these events.
  2. Coronary artery disease- Plaques considered stable within the heart’s arteries may cause angina or chest pain. When one ruptures suddenly, and clotting occurs, this causes the muscle of the heart to die. This is known as a heart attack.
  3. Peripheral artery disease- When plaque narrows arteries in the legs, it causes poor circulation. It often becomes painful to walk, and wounds may not heal well. If the disease becomes severe, it can lead to amputations.
  4. Chronic kidney disease- Often, atherosclerosis causes the arteries that lead up to the kidneys to narrow. This prevents oxygen-enriched blood from getting to them. Ultimately, this affects your kidney functioning and does not allow waste to exit the body.
  5. Aneurysms- This condition also causes aneurysms or bulges in the artery wall. They can happen anywhere in the body, and the scary thing is that they usually don’t have symptoms. Throbbing or pain may occur when there is an aneurysm and is considered a medical emergency.

If it bursts, you are at risk of internal bleeding that’s life-threatening. It is possible that the bleeding will leak slowly, though these events are usually sudden. If a blood clot breaks loose from an aneurysm, it can block an artery elsewhere in the body.

Symptoms of Atherosclerosis

The frightening thing is that this condition does not usually cause problems until we are middle-aged or older. As it gets narrower, it may cause pain when the blood flow shuts off.

Whose at Risk for Atherosclerosis?

This condition starts early. Autopsies performed on younger soldiers who died in the Vietnam and Korean wars illustrated that one half to three-quarters of the men had early stages of the disease. Today, numerous young people with no symptoms have evidence of various stages of atherosclerosis.

One study performed in 2001 on 262 supposedly healthy people showed that it was evident in 85 percent of people over 50. 52 percent of the participants had at least a little atherosclerosis. Even, 17 percent of teenagers in the study had it.

No one tested had symptoms and few of them had arteries that were severely narrowed. Most of the individuals were in the early parts of the disease that was only detectable by certain special tests.

Risk Factors of Atherosclerosis

Other factors than age include:

  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Tobacco use and smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Hereditary history of heart disease early on
  • Lack of exercise

Atherosclerosis Prevention

Recommended lifestyle changes for atherosclerosis treatment also help prevent the disease. They are exercising more regularly, eating the right healthy foods, quitting tobacco product use and smoking, and trying to maintain a weight healthy for your body.

Lifestyle changes may seem difficult to make, but if you take small steps, the change is very manageable. It's worth it to avoid the serious health problems associated with atherosclerosis.