Arteriosclerosis / atherosclerosis
Arteriosclerosis / atherosclerosis
Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body. Healthy arteries are flexible, strong and elastic. Over time, however, too much pressure in your arteries can make the walls thick and stiff — sometimes restricting blood flow to your organs and tissues. This process is called arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
Atherosclerosis is a specific type of arteriosclerosis, but the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Atherosclerosis refers to the buildup of fats in and on your artery walls (plaques), which can restrict blood flow. These plaques can also burst, causing a blood clot. Although atherosclerosis is often considered a heart problem, it can affect arteries anywhere in your body. Atherosclerosis is a preventable and treatable condition.
Atherosclerosis develops gradually. Mild atherosclerosis usually doesn't have any symptoms.
You usually won't have atherosclerosis symptoms until an artery is so narrowed or clogged that it can't supply adequate blood to your organs and tissues. Sometimes a blood clot completely blocks blood flow, or even breaks apart and can trigger a heart attack or stroke.
Symptoms of moderate to severe atherosclerosis depend on which arteries are affected. For example:
Sometimes atherosclerosis causes erectile dysfunction in men.
When to see a doctor
Atherosclerosis is a slow, progressive disease that may begin as early as childhood. Although the exact cause is unknown, atherosclerosis may start with damage or injury to the inner layer of an artery. The damage may be caused by:
Once the inner wall of an artery is damaged, blood cells called platelets often clump at the injury site to try to repair the artery, leading to inflammation. Over time, fatty deposits (plaques) made of cholesterol and other cellular waste products also build up at the injury and harden, narrowing your arteries. The organs and tissues connected to the blocked arteries then don't receive enough blood to function properly.
Eventually pieces of the fatty deposits may rupture and enter your bloodstream. This can cause a blood clot to form and damage your organs, such as in a heart attack. A blood clot can also travel to other parts of your body and partially or totally block blood flow to another organ.
Development of atherosclerosis
If you have too many cholesterol particles in your blood, cholesterol may accumulate on your artery walls. Eventually, deposits called plaques may form. The deposits may narrow — or block &...
Hardening of the arteries occurs over time. In addition to simply getting older, factors that increase the risk of atherosclerosis include:
The complications of atherosclerosis depend on the location of the blocked arteries. For example:
Preparing for your appointment
If you think you may have atherosclerosis, or are worried about having atherosclerosis because of a strong family history of heart disease, make an appointment with your family doctor to have your cholesterol level checked.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For atherosclerosis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor may find signs of narrowed, enlarged or hardened arteries during a physical exam. These include:
Depending on the results of the physical exam, your doctor may suggest one or more diagnostic tests, including:
Treatments and drugs
Lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthy diet and exercising, are often the best treatment for atherosclerosis. But sometimes, medication or surgical procedures may be recommended as well.
Various drugs can slow — or sometimes even reverse — the effects of atherosclerosis. Here are some common choices:
Sometimes more aggressive treatment is needed. If you have severe symptoms or a blockage that threatens muscle or skin tissue survival, you may be a candidate for one of the following surgical procedures:
Lifestyle and home remedies
Lifestyle changes can help you prevent or slow the progression of atherosclerosis.
If you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes or another chronic disease, work with your doctor to manage the condition and promote overall health.
It's thought that some foods and herbal supplements can help reduce your high cholesterol level and high blood pressure, two major risk factors for developing atherosclerosis. With your doctor's OK, consider these supplements and products:
Talk to your doctor before adding any of these supplements to your atherosclerosis treatment. Some supplements can interact with medications, causing harmful side effects.
You can also practice relaxation techniques, such as yoga or deep breathing, to help you relax and reduce your stress level. These practices can temporarily reduce your blood pressure, reducing your risk of developing atherosclerosis.
The same healthy lifestyle changes recommended to treat atherosclerosis also help prevent it. These include:
Just remember to make changes one step at a time, and keep in mind what lifestyle changes are manageable for you in the long run.
Last Updated: 2010-06-23
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