Like a congested highway, when blood vessels of the heart get clogged they do not function normally anymore. With reduced blood supply, life-giving oxygen is deprived leading to a slow and steady decay. This is what happens in atherosclerosis and this is the leading cause of millions of heart attacks and strokes. However, the most distressing fact is that atherosclerosis might not show itself up as symptoms of heart disease do not come till a good bit of damage is done.
What is atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is a form of arteriosclerosis. It is a progressive condition that occurs when arteries that supply oxygenated blood are narrowed due to the buildup of debris called plaque. Plaque consists of cholesterol, calcium, and fat substances. When these substances get deposited in the branch ends of the arteries, they obstruct the flow of oxygenated blood to various organs of the body.
Over a period of time, the obstruction to blood flow increases reducing the supply of oxygenated blood to organs like the heart and others. This leads to complications like:
- Coronary artery disease (ischemic heart disease)
- Carotid artery disease (leads to stroke)
- Chronic kidney disease
- Peripheral artery disease
- Heart attack
What causes atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is a progressing condition that starts as early as adolescence. It progresses as one ages, and is aggravated by the following conditions:
- High cholesterol levels (beyond normal cholesterol levels)
- High blood pressure
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Poor dietary choices
- Progressing age
- Family history of heart disease
- Usage of alcohol
Atherosclerosis occurs when there is buildup of arterial plaque. This is different from the plaque that occurs in the teeth. Arterial plaque consists of cholesterol, fatty substances, calcium, and waste products called fibrin. The cholesterol that is responsible for the formation of plaques is LDL or bad cholesterol.
Though most people have a buildup of plaque through their lives, a form of plaque called the vulnerable plaque is responsible for causing symptoms of heart disease. This vulnerable plaque is thin and is prone to rupture. When vulnerable plaque ruptures, it leads to a blood clot and subsequently a heart attack.
Unfortunately, the formation of plaques that lead to atherosclerosis does not manifest in the form of any symptoms of heart disease. That is why some people realize that they have atherosclerosis only after having a heart attack or a stroke.
Atherosclerosis symptoms depend upon the site where the plaque is deposited. Added to that the speed of deposition of plaque also determines whether a person has any atherosclerosis symptoms or not. While a sudden blockage causes a heart attack or stroke, gradual deposition does not cause symptoms until an extent of damage is done.
Atherosclerosis – Symptoms of heart disease
Atherosclerosis of coronary arteries
- Angina symptoms including chest pain and pain upon physical exertion
- Chest pain that feels like indigestion
- Pain that spreads from the shoulders to the neck, shoulder, and jaws
- Pain in the chest after emotional distress
- Shortness of breath
- Heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias)
- Trouble sleeping (in case of coronary microvascular disease)
- Tiredness and lack of energy
Atherosclerosis symptoms – Carotid arteries- Stroke symptoms
- Severe headache that is sudden in nature
- Loss of balance
- Unexplained falls
- Having trouble walking
- Vision problems
- Trouble with speech and understanding speech
- Sudden loss of consciousness
Atherosclerosis of peripheral arteries- Peripheral artery disease symptoms
- Heaviness in the leg
- Pain in legs
- Low or absent pulse in the affected leg
- Slow-healing wounds in the leg
- Lower temperature in the affected leg
- Lack of proper nail growth
- Poor hair growth in the affected leg
- In people with diabetes, erectile dysfunction
Know more about the diagnosis, complications, and treatment for atherosclerosis here