The arteries are the large blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood from the heart to the rest of the body. The build-up of plaque in the arteries is a condition medically referred to as atherosclerosis. Plaque consists of calcium, cholesterol, fat and other substances that circulate in the blood.
Healthy arteries are flexible and strong and move freely as blood travels through them. When plaque deposits build on the artery walls, it causes them to harden and stiffen. The plaque deposits also narrow the artery opening. Hardened, narrowed arteries hinders proper blood flow. Blood pressure increases, and blood flow to the organs and tissues is restricted. Occasionally, the calcium deposits can break free from the artery wall, forming a blood clot, which can completely block blood flow.
The exact cause of atherosclerosis is unknown. It is believed to develop as a result of chronic damage or injury to the inside of the arteries. The damage or injury can occur as a result of chronic high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and uncontrolled diabetes. Atherosclerosis is a gradual condition, and the arterial damage happens over a long period of time.
Mild atherosclerosis may not cause any symptoms. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute notes that many people may not realize they have atherosclerosis until calcium deposits completely hinder blood flow and cause a heart attack or stroke. When symptoms do occur, they usually differ based on which arteries are affected.
If the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart, are affected, it can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, abnormal heart rhythms, fatigue and lack of energy. If the carotid arteries, which supply blood to the brain, are affected, it can cause weakness and numbness in the face or limbs, difficulty speaking, confusion, vision disturbances, dizziness and sudden headaches. If the arteries that supply the limbs with blood, called the peripheral arteries, are affected, symptoms may include numbness, pain and infection.
Lifestyle changes are often the best treatment for atherosclerosis. Restricting fat, cholesterol and sodium intake and increasing exercise can help prevent complications that may develop from atherosclerosis. If lifestyle changes are not enough, medications to reduce cholesterol and calcium may be prescribed. Your doctor may also prescribe anti-platelet medications, which can reduce the risk of developing blood clots.
If left untreated, atherosclerosis can lead to coronary artery disease, which may result in a heart attack. The buildup of plaque can also cause carotid artery disease, which can result in a transient ischemic attack or stroke. An aneurysm may also occur as a result of atherosclerosis. An aneurysm is a bulge in the artery wall that may be life-threatening if it ruptures.