Atherosclerosis is a buildup of cholesterol plaque on the inner walls of the arteries. As plaque accumulates, the arterial walls can thicken, narrowing the channel within them and inhibiting blood flow. As a result, less oxygen-rich blood will reach vital organs and tissues throughout the body. 

What Causes Atherosclerosis? 

Atherosclerosis is a gradual, lifelong progression of changes in blood vessels. Although the precise causes are not yet well understood, many scientists believe that plaque may begin to form when an artery’s inner lining (endothelium) becomes damaged. Possible causes of the damage can include: 

  • Elevated levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Diabetes 
  • Smoking 

What Are the Symptoms of Atherosclerosis?

Usually, atherosclerosis does not produce noticeable symptoms until a narrowed or clogged artery reduces blood flow to organs and tissues. The symptoms of moderate to severe atherosclerosis can vary depending on the arteries affected as follows: 

  • Heart arteries – Chest pain or pressure (angina)
  • Arteries leading to the brain – Sudden numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, difficulty speaking or slurred speech, temporary loss of vision in one eye or drooping facial muscles (signs of a transient ischemic attack, or TIA) 
  • Arteries in the arms and legs – Leg pain when walking (claudication) or low blood pressure in the affected limb 
  • Arteries leading to the kidneys – High blood pressure or kidney failure 

It is important to pay close attention to these symptoms and to promptly discuss any unusual changes with a physician. In many cases, atherosclerosis goes undiagnosed until it causes a life-threatening heart attack or stroke. 

How Is Atherosclerosis Diagnosed? 

Typically, a physician will begin the diagnostic process by reviewing the patient’s complete medical history and performing a physical examination. Then, the physician may order one or more tests, such as a: 

  • Cardiac catheterization 
  • Doppler sonography 
  • Blood pressure comparison 
  • Multigated acquisition scan (MUGA)/radionuclide angiography 
  • Thallium/myocardial perfusion scan 
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan 

How Is Atherosclerosis Treated? 

Atherosclerosis treatment may involve a combination of healthy lifestyle modifications, such as quitting smoking, and medications. Some options include: 

  • Antiplatelet medications 
  • Cholesterol-lowering medications 
  • Anticoagulants 
  • Blood pressure medications 

In severe cases, a surgical procedure such as a coronary angioplasty or a coronary artery bypass may be considered. 

Tampa General Hospital offers the latest treatment options for atherosclerosis and its complications, including medications, mechanical clot removal, emergency stroke intervention and rehabilitation at our state-designated comprehensive stroke center. Our renowned team includes specialists in neurology, neurosurgery, neuroradiology and other related fields who provide life-saving care to patients who have experienced an ischemic or hemorrhagic stroke. Our surgeons can also remove plaque from the carotid artery to help prevent another stroke.