Symptoms and causes of hardened or narrowed arteries
Expert Heart & Vascular Care
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Arteriosclerosis is commonly known as hardening of the arteries, which happens when the walls of the arteries stiffen over time. Atherosclerosis is a type of this disease in which the arteries become narrow because of a buildup of plaque.
Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol and other cells in the blood that deposit along the inner walls of the arteries. As more is deposited over time, the passage through which blood can flow becomes narrower, and less blood reaches the rest of your body. This can increase your risk of kidney failure, heart attack or stroke. If a clump of plaque breaks away from the wall of the artery and enters the bloodstream, it can form a clot. A clot can block the flow of blood, resulting in organ failure, heart attack or stroke.
What are the symptoms of arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis?
Hardening and narrowing of the arteries occurs slowly over time. People typically don’t notice symptoms until blood supply to a limb or organ is blocked, or until they have a heart attack or stroke. The rate at which the arteries narrow depends on where the plaque deposits form, a person’s overall health, and other lifestyle factors such as smoking, which is a major contributor to atherosclerosis.
Many people think of arteriosclerosis as a heart problem, but it can affect any artery in the body. Two common types that usually occur in the legs are peripheral artery disease (PAD), also known as peripheral vascular disease (PVD).
Depending on where in the body the disease develops, you may experience mild symptoms, such as:
- Chest pressure or pain (angina)
- Symptoms of stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA), such as difficulty seeing or speaking, drooping facial muscles, or weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
- Leg pain when walking
Development of high blood pressure also can be a sign of hardening of the arteries.
What causes arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis?
The exact cause of arteriosclerosis is not fully known. However, we know that family history of heart disease, unhealthy lifestyle choices and certain medical conditions can increase the risk.
Damage to the inner layer of an artery may be the starting point for hardening of the arteries. The damaged area can turn into a haven for plaque to collect, thickening the walls of the artery and narrowing the passageway for blood.
Arterial wall damage can be caused by:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- High cholesterol or high triglycerides
- Inflammatory infections or diseases, such arthritis or lupus
- Insulin resistance or diabetes
- Use of tobacco products, such as smoking or using chewing tobacco
- Managing chronic conditions, achieving a healthy weight and quitting tobacco will help reduce your risk for atherosclerosis as well.
MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute specialists are leading an international study in the United States, Europe and Japan to better understand the risks associated with fatty plaque in the blood. More than 1,500 patients are enrolled in the study, which we hope will give us more insight into predicting future heart and vascular problems in people who previously were labeled low- to moderate-risk.