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What Are the Symptoms of Atherosclerosis?

The anatomy of a heart attack. Cholesterol in the bloodstream can build up as atherosclerotic plaque.
Article Details
  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 02 August 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2014
    Conjecture Corporation
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Atherosclerosis, commonly referred to as hardening of the arteries, is a serious medical condition that only presents symptoms once significant arterial damage has occurred. The buildup of plaque impairs blood flow, placing affected individuals at a significant risk for heart attack, stroke, and kidney damage. Treatment for the signs and symptoms of atherosclerosis is entirely dependent on symptom manifestation and severity.

Oftentimes, individuals with symptoms of atherosclerosis are diagnosed with hypertension, or high blood pressure. The arterial constriction that occurs in the presence of atherosclerosis dramatically impacts blood flow and arterial health, forcing arteries to work harder to circulate blood throughout the body, thus, increasing blood pressure. Additional risk factors, including smoking and obesity, may increase an individual’s risk for developing hypertension and symptoms of atherosclerosis. Medications are generally prescribed to lower blood pressure and lessen one’s risk for complications that can include heart attack and stroke.

Symptoms of atherosclerosis place the heart at significant risk for dysfunction and damage. Individuals with this condition are more likely to develop heart-related conditions that dramatically increase their risk for heart attack, including coronary artery disease and thoracic aortic aneurysm. As plaque buildup progresses, those who are diagnosed with arterial hardening may find that their ability to exercise becomes compromised.

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Coronary artery disease, also known as coronary heart disease (CHD), affects the functionality of the small blood vessels that circulate oxygenated blood through the heart muscle. The condition is frequently associated with angina, or chronic chest discomfort. Angina often manifests as a heaviness in the chest that may be accompanied by shortness of breath, especially during times of extensive physical activity or stress. Treatment for CHD often involves the administration of medication to regulate blood pressure, alleviate discomfort, and lower cholesterol. Complications associated with CHD include heart failure and premature death.

Arterial hardening within the heart muscle places the affected individual at a significant risk for aneurysm development. Frequently affecting the aorta, an aneurysm forms when blood flow within the arterial wall becomes jeopardized. The blockage-induced accumulation of blood within a vessel of the arterial wall normally presents no symptoms until the aneurysm seeps or ruptures. Treatment for this condition is dependent on the positioning of the aneurysm and usually requires surgery to arrange synthetic material in place of the damaged aorta to restore proper aortic function. Stenting is another treatment option that may be utilized to restore aortic function and appropriate blood flow.

Individuals with symptoms of atherosclerosis may develop poor circulation in their lower extremities that gets progressively worse, a condition known as peripheral artery disease (PAD). Manifesting as a constriction of the blood vessels causing oxygen deprivation in the affected tissues and muscles, PAD initially presents during times of activity, such as walking or running. With time, symptoms that include numbness and tingling of the legs and feet may present while the person is at rest. Generally, individuals with PAD are placed on an aspirin regimen and prescribed blood thinning and cholesterol lowering medications to slow disease progression and prevent complications.

When arterial hardening affects the vessels that supply the brain with oxygenated blood, one’s risk for cerebrovascular disease dramatically increases. Commonly known as a stroke, cerebrovascular disease occurs when an arterial blockage interrupts the circulation of oxygenated blood to the brain. Individuals experiencing a stroke may exhibit muscle weakness, impaired cognition, or be unable to speak properly. Additional signs are dependent on stroke severity and may include vertigo, impaired consciousness, and memory loss.

Considered a medical emergency, clot-induced cerebrovascular disease generally requires hospitalization and the administration of blood thinning medication, such as Coumadin, to dissolve the clot. Additional blood pressure regulating medications and analgesics may be given to alleviate discomfort caused by headache. Some individuals may require the administration of intravenous nutrients and fluids to help stabilize their condition. Depending on the severity of damage caused by the stroke, long-term therapy may be necessary.

Severe symptoms of atherosclerosis can result in the development of renal artery stenosis. Also known as renovascular hypertension, renal artery stenosis develops when plaque-induced arterial narrowing affects the arteries that supply the kidneys with oxygenated blood, ultimately causing blood pressure to increase. Individuals with renovascular hypertension may experience impaired cognition, angina, and arrhythmia. It is not uncommon for individuals whose kidney function is compromised to pass blood in their urine. Individuals with this condition are often prescribed medications to lower their cholesterol and blood pressure and reduce their risk for complications that may include kidney damage and kidney failure.

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