Symptoms of atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis: 5 Terms to Know

When doctors start throwing around long, Latin-sounding words, it can make a frightening situation even worse. You should never be hesitant to ask your physician to be more descriptive, but sometimes it can take awhile for the information to sink in and to realize you really only caught about half of what she said. Here are a few terms that might help if you or a loved one are struggling with atherosclerosis. 


This condition occurs when the arteries (the blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart, as opposed to veins with bring it into the heart) become stiffer and thicker.The arteries harden, which makes it more difficult for blood to carry around all its vital nutrients and deliver oxygen all over the body so muscles and organs function properly. Many different factors can cause this hardening of vessels that were once loose and limber. 


Atherosclerosis falls under the umbrella of arteriosclerosis. Either word may be used (which can make things even more confusing), but atherosclerosis is specific to the stuff that builds up to make the arteries so hard. Because of these things, heart diseases, heart attacks and strokes may occur. The build up happens slowly, and often without warning. This can be partly due to the passage of time, but poor living, an unhealthy diet, and inactivity can all contribute. 


This is the actual stuff that builds up in the arteries: extra cells bouncing around and getting stuck, cholesterol, excess fat, and other things. As they collect along the cell walls, they take up more and more space in the blood vessels, leaving less and less room for blood to pass through. Eventually, they can become painful; the plaque can even rupture, or burst, resulting in a blood clot—in any vessel in the body, not just the heart. 

Blood Clot

When the platelets that are part of the blood come across an area in a vein or artery that has been damaged, they begin gathering together(clotting) to stop up the hole. Once the hole is plugged, natural chemical reactions make the clot halt in place and eventually break it down so it drifts away when the area is healed. Think of a scab. That’s a healthy blood clot, on the outside of the skin, away from where the blood is flowing. However, when the plaque ruptures, a clot can form on the inside, which gets in the way of the natural flow of the blood. Depending upon where it’s placed, it can cause strokes or heart attacks, among other things. 

Cardiovascular Disease

These are diseases specific to the heart and blood vessels. The clots that the plaque of atherosclerosis cause in turn cause a variety of cardiovascular diseases. For example, coronary artery disease happens when this process occurs in the heart and is essentially a heart attack. If this happens in the legs, it’s referred to as peripheral artery disease, and cerebrovascular disease are things like a stroke, when the clotting problem occurs in the brain. 

Last Updated: April 18, 2018