Arterial stiffness, also known as atherosclerosis, is a progressive condition that adversely affects arterial function. Commonly associated with age and arterial plaque accumulation, treatment usually involves medication and dietary changes. Severe presentations of atherosclerosis can necessitate surgery to restore arterial health.
Hardening of the arteries is generally diagnosed with the aid of a complete physical examination and several diagnostic tests. The most common sign of arterial stiffness is impaired blood circulation as indicated by the presence of a bruit — an anomalous sound created by the passage of blood through a compromised artery. Usually discovered during the physical examination, a bruit often serves to initiate more extensive testing. Imaging tests, including ultrasound and electrocardiogram (ECG), may be performed to assess arterial health and measure the electrical conductivity and overall functionality of the heart. Cardiac catheterization may also be conducted to determine if there are any blockages in the coronary arteries.
As one ages, the arteries lose flexibility. The weakened and injured arterial tissues are left susceptible to inflammation. Additional irritation develops when waste material, carried by the circulating blood, collects along the compromised arterial wall and solidifies. The hardened material may reinforce the weakened tissue, but it also creates an obstruction that impedes blood flow and deprives the affected tissue of proper nutrients.
In addition to age, other factors can increase the likelihood that one may develop arterial stiffness. For some individuals, the loss of tone may originate with localized trauma or vascular scarring. Individuals who smoke are often considered to possess a significantly higher chance for atherosclerosis than nonsmokers. Additionally, chronic conditions, such as obesity, hypertension, and heart disease, may increase one’s risk for hardening of the arteries.
Signs and symptoms of atherosclerosis will usually present once a significant blockage has formed within the affected artery. The type, presentation, and severity of one’s symptoms are dependent on the location of the blockage. If the obstruction is within the cardiovascular system, one may experience chest discomfort, elevated heart rate, or shortness of breath. Arterial stiffness in the extremities can induce pain, weakness, and numbness. Atherosclerosis that compromises blood flow to the brain can induce stroke-like symptoms, including weakness of one or both limbs and impaired cognition.
If symptoms are ignored or treatment is insufficient, arterial stiffness carries considerable risk for complications. Arterial stiffness can lead to widespread atherosclerosis and impaired circulation that leaves one vulnerable to infection and necrosis, or tissue death. Blood clot formation can result in aneurysm development that can quickly become life-threatening. Localized arterial stiffness may also contribute to the onset of secondary conditions, including carotid and coronary artery disease.
Initial treatment usually involves changes to one’s diet and lifestyle. Medications may be prescribed to lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, and thin the blood to prevent blood clots. If one’s condition necessitates, surgery may be performed to restore arterial function. Stent placement, plaque removal, and bypass surgery are among the most common methods used for alleviating arterial blockage.