How to Detect Plaque in Arteries

Plaque in the arteries, also known as atherosclerosis, is a medical condition in which cholesterol (a fatty substance floating in your blood) builds up and forms plaque in your blood vessels. This decreases blood flow in your body and can lead to serious medical conditions like a heart attack or stroke. The most common symptoms of plaque in your arteries include chest pain, leg pain or numbness and weakness in your extremities. According to the Merck Manual, atherosclerosis is expected to be the leading cause of death worldwide by 2020. If you want to check if you have plaque buildup in your arteries, there are ways to detect this condition.

A nurse checks an elderly patient's pulse. (Image: AlexRaths/iStock/Getty Images)

Step 1

Go to your family doctor and have her perform a physical exam. She will check your pulses (a beating of the arteries that can be palpated) in your body to see if they are absent or weak. She will listen to your arteries with a stethoscope for bruits (turbulent sound of the arteries) and check if your blood pressure is low. These physical findings can be indicative of plaque in your arteries.

Step 2

Obtain a blood test to check your cholesterol and sugar levels. In a fasting lipid profile, do not eat for at least eight hours before the test and your doctor will draw blood to look at your total cholesterol, bad cholesterol (LDL) and good cholesterol (HDL). A high total cholesterol of greater than 200 milligrams per deciliter can be indicative of plaque buildup in your arteries. A high sugar level can increase your risk of plaque formation in your arteries.

Step 3

Go to your cardiovascular (doctor of the heart and vessels) doctor to obtain a doppler ultrasound, an ankle-brachial index or an electrocardiogram (ECG). According to the Mayo Clinic, a doppler ultrasound allows your doctor to use a special probe to measure the blockage and speed of blood flow in your arteries. In an ankle-brachial index your doctor will take your blood pressure in your ankle and arm to determine if there is plaque in the arteries of your legs and feet. An ECG allows your doctor to detect any abnormal rhythms in your heart and therefore, any potential blockages in your heart's arteries.

Step 4

Visit your radiologist (doctor of images) and obtain an angiogram or a computerized tomography scan (CT). The Mayo Clinic states that an angiogram involves injecting a dye into your arteries prior to obtaining an X-ray. Your doctor can visualize whether any plaque exists in your arteries. A CT scan takes image slices of your arteries.

Things You'll Need

  • Blood tests to check cholesterol and sugar levels

  • Doppler ultrasound

  • Ankle-brachial index

  • Electrocardiogram

  • Angiogram

  • Computerized tomography scan

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