Arteriosclerosis, also called hardening of the arteries, is a disease in which previously flexible arteries become stiffened and hard. This can reduce blood supply to tissues and organs, including the heart. When this disease affects the heart, arteriosclerosis symptoms can include chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue and cardiac arrhythmia. Arteriosclerosis also can affect the brain or limbs.
In someone with arteriosclerosis, one or more arteries narrow and stiffen. Stiffening generally is the result of high blood pressure and inflammation, which leads to the formation of scar tissue. This scar tissue is harder and less flexible than healthy artery tissue, and the arteries become more narrow because of plaque buildup. Plaque is a material composed of fat, cholesterol and other substances that are deposited on artery walls over time. Deposition of plaque narrows the arteries, further contributing to the problem.
Arteriosclerosis symptoms differ substantially depending on the location of the arteries that are affected by the disease. When it affects the heart, arteriosclerosis sometimes is called coronary artery disease. The symptoms of this disease include episodes of chest pain called angina, in which a heavy, squeezing pain is felt in the center of the chest. Other symptoms such as shortness of breath, anxiety and sweating can accompany the pain. Episodes of angina typically occur after exercise, but they also can occur when at rest.
When this disease affects the vertebral or carotid arteries that supply blood to the brain, a different pattern of arteriosclerosis symptoms develops. Intermittent symptoms of weakness, numbness, swallowing difficulty and speech loss can occur. More serious symptoms include blindness, typically in one eye, and paralysis on one side of the body.
In peripheral vascular disease, also called peripheral artery disease, the arteries that supply the legs or arms are affected. The most common arteriosclerosis symptoms in this case are pain in the arms or legs. When the pain occurs in the legs, it is known as intermittent claudication, because the pain generally is apparent only when the person walks or runs. Severe disease causes pain even when at rest or during the night. Leg wounds might be slow to heal, and minor infections can become serious quickly.
High blood pressure is one common cause of arteriosclerosis and can contribute to the development of kidney disease. If the kidneys are affected by high blood pressure, the disease can be worsened if the blood supply to the organs is reduced as a result of arteriosclerosis. When the kidneys are affected, arteriosclerosis symptoms are not always easy to detect. Someone with kidney disease might have changes in urine production or changes in frequency of urination and might have dark-colored urine or bloody urine.