Dr. med. Dipl. oec. med., FESC Michael LichtenbergArnsberg, Westfalen
- Arteriosclerosis overview
- Symptoms of arteriosclerosis/ atherosclerosis
- Causes of arteriosclerosis/ atherosclerosis
- Diagnosis of arteriosclerosis/ atherosclerosis
- Treatment of arteriosclerosis/ atherosclerosis
- Chances of recovery from arteriosclerosis/ atherosclerosis
- Prevention of arteriosclerosis/ atherosclerosis
Arteriosclerosis develops when blood vessels (arteries) that convey oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body start to become thick and hard, restricting the blood flow to your organs and tissues. When healthy, these arteries are elastic and flexible. However, as time passes, your artery walls can become much stiffer – a condition often described as hardening of the arteries.
Atherosclerosis is actually a specific kind of arteriosclerosis and is a treatable condition. As in this article, both these terms are regularly used to describe a hardening of the arteries.
Symptoms of arteriosclerosis/ atherosclerosis
Hardening of the arteries develops gradually, and in a milder form tends not to have any obvious symptoms.
Which symptoms of moderate to severe atherosclerosis are present will depend on the arteries affected. For instance:
• atherosclerosis in your heart arteries may produce symptoms of pressure or chest pain (angina).
• atherosclerosis in arteries leading to your brain may produce symptoms such as sudden numbness or weakness in your limbs, speech difficulties, temporary loss of vision, or sagging face muscles. This suggests a transient ischemic attack (TIA), and if untreated may lead to a stroke.
• atherosclerosis in your arm or leg arteries may produce symptoms of peripheral artery disease, such as leg pain when walking.
• atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your kidneys may trigger high blood pressure or kidney failure.
Consult your doctor if you believe you have atherosclerosis, and be aware of early signs of inadequate blood flow, such as numbness, chest pain (angina) or pain in your leg.
Prompt diagnosis and treatment will stop atherosclerosis getting worse and prevent a heart attack, stroke or other life-threatening medical emergency.
Causes of arteriosclerosis/ atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis progresses slowly and may even start during childhood. Experts believe atherosclerosis may begin when there is damage or injury to an artery’s inner layer. This could be due to:
• high blood pressure
• high cholesterol
• high levels of triglycerides – a type of fat (lipid) in your blood
• insulin resistance, diabetes or obesity
• inflammation caused by diseases such as arthritis or lupus
When damage occurs, blood cells and other materials accumulate and fatty cholesterol deposits (plaques) and other cell products also build up at the spot, narrowing your arteries. Some of these fatty deposits may then find their way into your bloodstream.
Diagnosis of arteriosclerosis/ atherosclerosis
A doctor will examine you to look for these symptoms of narrowing, hardening or enlarging of arteries:
• a weakened pulse (or none) below the narrowed part of an artery
• reduced blood pressure in any affected limb
• whooshing vascular sounds (bruits) indicating a localised obstruction
Following this examination, diagnosis may require some of these tests:
• blood tests
• Doppler ultrasound tests to provide information about blood flow and blockages
• ankle-brachial index, which compares the blood pressure in your ankle and arm
• electrocardiogram (ECG), which provides data about your heart function
• a stress test will check how your heart performs during physical activity
• cardiac catheterisation and angiogram to determine whether coronary arteries are narrowed or blocked
Treatment of arteriosclerosis/ atherosclerosis
Lifestyle changes are usually an appropriate and effective treatment for atherosclerosis. In addition to a healthy diet and exercise, medication or surgical treatment may also be recommended.
Modern drugs can slow atherosclerosis— or even reverse its effects. These are some typical options:
• Cholesterol medications aim to lower "bad" cholesterol in order to reduce, stop or even reverse the accumulation of fatty deposits in arteries. These medications include statins that can also help stabilise heart artery linings and prevent atherosclerosis.
• Anti-platelet medications, such as aspirin, reduce the likelihood that platelets will block narrowed arteries by forming a blood clot.
• Beta blocker medications lower the heart rate and thus blood pressure to minimise the risk of a heart attack.
• Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors are drugs that lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of further heart attacks.
• Calcium channel blockers lower blood pressure and can be prescribed to treat angina.
• Water pills (diuretics) are used to reduce blood pressure.
Certain severe symptoms or a blockage may require one of the following surgical procedures:
• Angioplasty and stent placement to keep the artery open.
• Endarterectomy to remove deposits from a narrowed artery.
• Fibrinolytic therapy, which administers a clot-dissolving drug.
• Bypass surgery, which allows blood to flow around a blocked or narrowed artery.
Chances of recovery from arteriosclerosis/ atherosclerosis
After treatment, your health may improve – though how much will depend on the severity of your condition and the nature of the treatment. Though hardening of the arteries cannot be reversed, appropriate medical care coupled with a healthy diet and lifestyle changes can prevent the condition getting worse.
Prevention of arteriosclerosis/ atherosclerosis
Healthy lifestyle adjustments can prevent or slow the progress of atherosclerosis. These include:
• stopping smoking
• eating a healthy diet
• taking regular exercise
• keeping to a healthy weight
Make any adjustments one step at a time, and consider what changes will be achievable in the longer term.