Healthy arteries are the flexible, strong and elastic vessels that convey oxygen and necessary nutrients from the heart to the rest of the body. Over time, though, too much pressure in these arteries can make their walls thick and stiff. This can restrict blood flow to the organs and tissues of the body. This process is known as arteriosclerosis.
Specifically, atherosclerosis is a particular type of arteriosclerosis. Often, however, the terms are used interchangeably. In general, atherosclerosis refers to any buildup of fats inside the artery walls. These buildups are known as plaques and they are the main reason for restricted blood flow. Plaques are also capable of bursting into pieces, which can cause a blood clot.
Atherosclerosis is usually considered to be a cardiac problem, but it can affect arteries anywhere in the body. Fortunately, it’s both a preventable and treatable condition that develops gradually over many years.
In fact, mild atherosclerosis typically doesn't have any noticeable symptoms. Most people will not have symptoms of atherosclerosis until an artery is clogged to the point that it can no longer supply adequate blood to the body’s organs and tissues. When a blood clot totally blocks blood flow through an artery, it can cause a heart attack or stroke.
The symptoms of moderate to severe atherosclerosis are dependent on which arteries are affected. If the atherosclerosis is in the heart arteries, many people will have symptoms like those of a heart attack. This can include chest pain.
If the atherosclerosis is in the arteries leading to the brain, then a person can have symptoms such as sudden weakness in their arms or legs, difficulty speaking, slurred speech, or drooping muscles in the face. All of these symptoms can lead to a stroke.
If the atherosclerosis is in the arteries of the arms and legs, then a person may have symptoms of peripheral artery disease. This can include leg pain when walking otherwise known as intermittent claudication.
The exact cause of atherosclerosis is unknown, but it most commonly starts with damage or an injury to the inside layer of an artery. The damage may be caused by high blood pressure, high cholesterol, exposure to nicotine, and diabetes.
After the inside wall of an artery is injured, platelets will often clump together at the site of the damage to repair the artery. This will lead to inflammation. After a while, plaques will also accumulate at the site and harden, narrowing the arteries.