Arteriosclerosis is the thickening, hardening and loss of elasticity of the walls of arteries. This process gradually restricts the blood flow to organs and tissues and can lead to atherosclerosis, a build-up of plaque in artery walls that can cause life-threatening heart disease, strokes, circulation problems in the arms and legs, aneurysms and chronic kidney disease.

Arteriosclerosis Causes and Risk Factors

The following factors can contribute to arteriosclerosis:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • High triglycerides, a type of lipid (fat) in your blood
  • Insulin resistance or diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Smoking or use of other tobacco products

Older individuals, and those with a family history of arteriosclerosis, are at a higher risk for arteriosclerosis. Additional risk factors include:

  • Lack of exercise
  • An unhealthy diet

Although you cannot control your family history or genetics, you can reduce your risk for arteriosclerosis through medications (for high blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes) and adopt a healthy lifestyle by quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and eating healthy foods.

Symptoms of Arteriosclerosis

Hardening of the arteries occurs gradually, often with no outward symptoms. Despite a lack of symptoms, however, as arteriosclerosis progresses, clogged arteries may trigger a stroke or heart attack, carrying with them the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain or pressure (angina)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Sudden arm or leg weakness or numbness
  • Slurred speech or difficulty speaking
  • Brief loss of vision in one eye
  • Drooping facial muscles
  • Leg pain when walking

If you experience any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.

Diagnosis of Arteriosclerosis

If you think you have atherosclerosis, talk to your physician. Early diagnosis and treatment can stop atherosclerosis from worsening and prevent a heart attack, stroke or other medical emergency.

Your physician will take a complete family history and perform a medical exam, to detect signs of abnormal artery function.

Your physician may also suggest one or more diagnostic tests:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) – a non-invasive test used to measure electrical activity of the heart. It can detect the presence of heart disease or a previous heart attack
  • Stress test – a non-invasive test used to measure changes to the heart rate, rhythm or electrical activity, and blood pressure
  • Blood tests – tests that can reveal risk factors for arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis, such as high cholesterol, blood pressure or blood sugars
  • Doppler ultrasound – a non-invasive test used to check blood flow and artery clogging
  • Cardiac CT scan – a non-invasive test that provides X-ray-based information on the structure and function of the heart and its vessels
  • Angiogram – an X-ray test in which a catheter is threaded into an artery up from the groin, to check blood flow and artery clogging
  • MRA (magnetic resonance angiography) – a non-invasive test that uses magnetic and radio wave energy to take pictures of blood vessels
  • Coronary Artery Scanning (CAS) – the most sensitive, non-invasive screen available to detect the presence of an extent of early atherosclerosis
  • Ankle-brachial index (ABI) – a non-invasive test used to detect atherosclerosis in the legs and feet

Treatments for Arteriosclerosis

Treatment for arteriosclerosis includes a healthy diet, exercise, smoking cessation and medication, to control or possibly reverse your condition.

Depending on the extent of the blockage, physicians affiliated with Memorial Hermann may prescribe additional treatments or procedures, which might include:

  • Stenting - Stents are used to keep blocked arteries open, allowing for normal blood flow through the heart. Stenting is usually performed at the same time as an angioplasty. Once the balloon catheter is deflated and removed after the angioplasty, the stent stays in place to keep the artery open.
  • Balloon angioplasty – A procedure commonly used for blockages in larger vessels, with stents again possible. During this procedure, a catheter (thin tube) with a balloon at the tip is inserted into a blocked artery. The balloon is then inflated, which pushes plaque outward against the artery wall. This widens the artery and restores blood flow.
  • Open bypass surgery – If blood flow to a limb is nearly blocked, physicians may use a blood vessel from another part of the body or a man-made tube to route blood around the clogged part, allowing flow around the blockage.

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