What is atherosclerosis?

Understanding Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is a specific type of arteriosclerosis, although these terms are often used to describe the same condition. Arteriosclerosis refers to the condition that is commonly known as hardening of the arteries, which restricts blood flow to your organs and tissues.

Atherosclerosis is branch of arteriosclerosis and refers specifically to the buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances in and on your artery walls that are restricting the blood flow. This buildup is also known as plaque, and if it break away from the artery walls, this can trigger a blood clot, which can be very dangerous. Fortunately, atherosclerosis is a condition that is very treatable and preventable.  


Atherosclerosis is a condition that develops very gradually, meaning that symptoms may not be present at all when the condition is in the milder stages. In fact, you usually won’t produce any symptoms until your artery is so clogged and narrow that it is unable to adequately supply blood to your tissues and organs. At this stage, you would be at risk for a blood clot breaking apart and triggering a heart attack or stroke.

Atherosclerosis in the moderate to severe stages may produce some symptoms, but they will vary depending on which arteries are being affected. For example, atherosclerosis in the heart arteries may produce angina, which is chest pain or pressure. Another example might be atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to the brain producing symptoms such as sudden numbness in your arms and legs or slurred speech.

It is important to see your doctor as soon as possible if you suspect you might have atherosclerosis, since the earlier it is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can begin. Treatment for this condition can prevent serious medical emergencies from occurring, such as heart attack or stroke. If you experience any early symptoms of lessened blood flow such as angina or numbness, talk to your doctor.


Atherosclerosis is believed to begin with some sort of damage or injury to the inner layer of your artery. This damage could be caused by a number of things, such as:

  • Smoking 
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Diseases that cause inflammation, such as arthritis, lupus, or infections
  • High cholesterol
  • High triglycerides 


Once you have been properly diagnosed with atherosclerosis, your treatment plan will often focus on lifestyle changes, such as eating healthier and exercising regularly. However, sometimes medications or surgical procedures may be recommended; it depends on the location and severity of your atherosclerosis.

There are many medications that work to slow or reverse the effects of atherosclerosis, such as cholesterol medications, anti-platelet medications, beta-blocker medications, ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors, calcium channel blockers, or diuretics. There are other medications your doctor may prescribe to treat the specific symptoms of atherosclerosis, such as leg pain.

In more severe cases, more aggressive treatment is necessary. Surgical procedures are usually considered if you are experiencing a blockage that is threatening muscle or skin tissue survival or if you are at risk for heart attack or stroke. Some common procedures include:

  • Angioplasty and stent placement: This procedure involves inserting a catheter, which is a long, thin tube, into the blocked part of your artery. Then, a second catheter with a deflated a balloon is used to pass through the first catheter to the narrowed part of the artery where the balloon is inflated to compress the deposits along your artery walls. Finally, a stent, which is a mesh tube, is typically left in the artery to keep the artery open and prevent future problems.
  • Bypass surgery: This involves creating a bypass for your blood to flow around the blocked artery using a grafted blood vessel from another part of your body.
  • Endarterectomy: This procedure is performed to remove fatty deposits that are found along the walls of the narrowed artery.
  • Thrombolytic therapy: If your artery is blocked by a blot clot, this procedure is used to break apart the clot using a clot-dissolving drug. 
Last Updated: June 20, 2017