Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Tests For Atherosclerosis

Submitted on March 27, 2012

Arteries that carry blood to the heart muscle are called coronary arteries, and heart disease often is the result of restricted blood flow from these arteries. Also called coronary artery disease or coronary heart disease, it can lead to fatal heart attacks or strokes unless necessary care is taken. The buildup of plaque on the walls of the arteries restricts the flow of nutrient rich blood to the heart and causes hardening of the arteries. This is the most common type of heart disease. Besides this the heart could be affected by diseases, such as heart valve disease, congenital heart disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and pericarditis.

Tests Recommended

During a regular physical examination, the doctor checks for an abnormal whooshing sound from an artery that may be blocked. A slow or missing pulse may also indicate a block in an important artery.

Diagnostic tests and blood tests to get the lipid profile and measure the HDL and LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood are ordered to confirm a diagnosis of atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis tests such as an electrocardiogram (ECG) can be used to monitor the strength of heart beats and echocardiography may be used to identify problems in the flow of blood to the heart muscle. Stress testing on a treadmill allows monitoring of the supply of blood and oxygen to the heart when the demand increases during the exercises; less than adequate supply may indicate the presence of atherosclerosis. Measuring the blood pressure at the ankle and in the arm after a treadmill exercise to establish the ankle/brachial index is the test used to check for peripheral arterial disease. Chest X-ray can be useful in detecting an enlarged heart or an aneurysm in a major artery. Computed tomography scans are used to detect calcium deposits on the walls of arteries to enable the assessment of risks of coronary artery disease. Angiography uses a dye injected through a catheter into the arteries leading to the heart to assess the buildup of plaque, the extent of blockage and to monitor the flow of blood.


Several innate natural factors such as age, race, genetic factors, and gender contribute to atherosclerosis, and these cannot be controlled. Atherosclerosis causes that can be controlled by individuals include high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, and substance abuse. Unhealthy high fat diets and lack of adequate physical exercise are the main reasons behind high blood cholesterol levels. Those with a personal or family history of heart disease should ensure that they follow a healthy lifestyle as they are prone to develop atherosclerosis. With advanced age, symptoms of atherosclerosis such as short breath, weakness, and fatigue may be ignored or misinterpreted to be a part of the process of ageing, particularly among women and diabetics.


As mentioned earlier, atherosclerosis is a disease caused by the buildup of plaque on the walls of arteries. The plaque, made up of cholesterol, fat and calcium collects on the inner walls of arteries, causing it to harden over time and thus reduce the flow of blood through the artery. The buildup of plaque also increases the possibility of blood clots forming in the arteries. This would not allow proper flow of blood. Hardening of arteries can happen in any part of the body, though atherosclerosis symptoms may not appear until the blood flow is slowed or blocked. Symptoms related to disturbances in heart arteries include chest pain or pressure and difficulty breathing. Angina which is characterized by chest pain is the first warning sign of a heart attack or a myocardial infraction for many people. When an artery supplying blood to the brain is blocked, it can result in a transient ischemic attack or a stroke. Symptoms related to disturbances in brain arteries include drooping muscle in the face and garbled or slurred speech or inability to speak. Sudden numbness in the arms or legs should not be ignored as this could indicate a block in a major artery supplying blood to the limbs. It is called peripheral arterial disease. Symptoms related to disturbances in arm and leg arteries include arm pain and leg pain.


Atherosclerosis treatment could involve surgical intervention, medication to reduce the risk of blood clot formation and prevent the buildup arterial plaque, and lifestyle changes to prevent diseases related to atherosclerosis. Medical treatment of atherosclerosis involves drugs to control high blood pressure, reduce cholesterol levels in the blood, and blood thinners to prevent clots from forming. Therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLC) include eating a healthy diet and getting adequate physical exercise so as to maintain a healthy weight. Those with atherosclerosis are urged to quit smoking as tobacco can add to narrowing of arteries. Lifestyle changes that include physical activity and relaxation also enable patients to manage stress and reduce hyper tension. Surgical treatment for atherosclerosis could be an angioplasty, wherein a stent is placed in the blocked artery to keep it open to facilitate better blood flow. A bypass surgery may be performed to redirect blood around a block in an artery through a graft to improve the flow of blood.