Atherosclerosis, Arteriosclerosis or Arterialsclerosis
The following describes the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of atherosclerosis. For specific information regarding your health and treatment options, please contact your Hurley physician or medical professional.
What is atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is the medical term for what is more commonly known as “hardening of the arteries.” While atherosclerosis is a form of arteriosclerosis (which is also called arterialsclerosis), all three terms are often used interchangeably.
Atherosclerosis can affect large and medium-size arteries throughout the body, although it frequently arises in the coronary arteries. Under normal circumstances, the walls of the artery are flexible and strong, and can expand or contract as necessary. However, in some people the artery walls may become rigid and/or thicken. This can diminish blood flow to the heart, other organs and tissues in the body, leading to a range of health problems.
What causes atherosclerosis?
While the exact cause or causes of atherosclerosis are not fully understood, it is believed that the condition begins following damage or injury to the inner layer of the artery or arteries (called the endothelium). In response to the damage, plaque is deposited in the area and begins to harden, narrowing the arteries and restricting blood flow to vital organs and tissues. The plaque may also rupture; when this occurs, it can cause blood clots to form which, if they block blood flow or break loose and move into other areas of the circulatory system, can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Arteries can be damaged by the following:
- A high-fat and/or high-cholesterol diet
- Lack of exercise or poor physical condition
- A family history of vascular disease
- High blood pressure
- Diabetes and other chronic and acute diseases
What are the symptoms of atherosclerosis?
Initial symptoms of atherosclerosis may be so mild that they go unnoticed. As the disease progresses, some patients may experience different symptoms depending on the location of the arteries affected. For example, if coronary arteries are affected, patients may experience angina (chest pain), as well as arrhythmia (rapid or erratic heartbeat) or shortness of breath. If the arteries that supply blood to the brain are affected, patients may experience symptoms similar to a mild stroke, including dizziness or lightheadedness, difficulty speaking or concentrating, headache or fainting. Problems with the renal arteries may cause chronic kidney disease, and hardening peripheral arteries (which supply the legs and arms with blood) may cause pain or numbness in the extremities.
Left untreated, these symptoms will tend to get worse over time, and can lead to heart attack, stroke, failure of other organs, and a number of other problems.
How is atherosclerosis diagnosed?
Your Hurley cardiologist will begin by conducting a full physical examination to assess your general health, your lifestyle conditions, and factors that might be contributing to the progression of atherosclerosis. Your physician will likely test your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and conduct a number of other tests, including blood tests, x-rays, exercise stress tests, echocardiograms and electrocardiograms (EKG or ECG), among others.
How is atherosclerosis treated?
Treatment options for atherosclerosis will depend upon the severity of the specific symptoms you are experiencing, the underlying cause of the condition, and the progression of the disease. Initial treatment options focus on lifestyle changes such as appropriate diet and eating habits, increased exercise, and smoking cessation, among other changes. Medications may be prescribed to return blood pressure and cholesterol to normal levels, and a low-dose aspirin regimen may be used to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
For more advanced cases, angioplasty, stents and other minimally invasive surgical treatments may be recommended to reopen partially or fully blocked blood vessels. Carotid endarterectomy may be recommended to remove excessive plaque buildup, or coronary bypass surgery may be an appropriate treatment that re-routes blood flow past damaged or blocked arteries.
Your Hurley cardiologist will review these and other treatment options with you so that, together, you can determine the best course of action.