If you’ve been told you have plaque in your arteries, you have a common condition known as atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis, also called hardening of the arteries, occurs when substances such as fat and cholesterol build-up along the walls of the arteries. While having some level of build-up, or plaque, in the arteries is very common, it can pose a danger to your health over time.

That’s because plaque can accumulate, which causes the artery walls to thicken. This gradually narrows the artery, which limits the flow of oxygenated blood throughout the body.

Risk Factors for Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis often occurs as we age, and it progresses gradually as more plaque accumulates. Researchers aren’t entirely certain why atherosclerosis occurs, but there are certain risk factors that can place you at an increased risk of developing the condition.

Risk factors include:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Elevated cholesterol and triglycerides
  • High blood pressure

Each risk factor is believed to contribute to atherosclerosis in the same way—by causing damage along the inner lining of the arteries.

Smoking is a particularly significant risk factor because it can both increase the risk of plaque forming in the first place and accelerate the growth of plaque once it begins.

Symptoms of Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is what’s considered a silent condition, meaning it doesn’t typically cause any symptoms until an artery is severely narrowed or even blocked.

Because of that, many people are unaware they have atherosclerosis until a medical emergency such as a heart attack or stroke occurs.

With that said, though, some people may experience symptoms before plaque has built up to that extent. The symptoms experienced vary depending on which arteries are affected.

Atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries, for example, can cause angina, which is chest discomfort that occurs when the heart muscle doesn’t get enough oxygenated blood. Other symptoms may include shortness of breath and arrhythmias.

When atherosclerosis impacts the carotid arteries, which supply blood to the brain, a person may experience symptoms common with stroke, including sudden weakness, paralysis or numbness, trouble speaking or seeing, dizziness or a sudden and severe headache.

Atherosclerosis can also impact the peripheral arteries, which supply oxygenated blood to the legs, arms, and pelvis and the renal arteries, which supply blood to the kidneys. Plaque build-up in the peripheral arteries can cause numbness, pain, or infections, while plaque in the renal arteries can lead to kidney disease and a loss of kidney function.

Treatment for Atherosclerosis at Georgia Heart Institute

In the early stages of atherosclerosis, lifestyle changes are often the first method of treatment. Your cardiologist will work with you to implement heart-healthy habits, including regular exercise, a balanced diet low in saturated fat, stress management and smoking cessation.

In addition to lifestyle changes to help prevent further plaque build-up, treatment may also include medications or minimally-invasive interventions may be used to relieve any symptoms you’re experiencing, prevent future health issues and protect heart health long term. In severe cases of coronary artery disease, surgery may be recommended.