Atherosclerosis is a progressive condition started by chronic inflammation of the blood vessels in the arteries, which take blood away from the heart. Also referred to as coronary artery disease, atherosclerosis and inflammation occur when plaque in the arteries builds up and restricts blood flow. Treatment is centered on reducing additional plaque formation and restoring arterial health. In addition to lifestyle changes, individuals may be placed on cholesterol-lowering medication and, in some cases, undergo surgery to reopen affected arteries.
Individuals with existing, chronic blood vessel constriction are the most likely to develop arterial inflammation. Smoking and high blood pressure are the most common conditions that contribute to arterial inflammation. Other factors that increase one’s risk for atherosclerosis include obesity, cardiovascular disease, and alcoholism.
When blood pressure increases, the heart is forced to pump harder to circulate blood through the arteries. The increased pressure leaves compromised blood vessels susceptible to injury that requires an immune response from the body to repair damaged tissues. It is the repair process, which can easily become ongoing, that contributes to chronic arterial inflammation.
As chronic inflammation of the arterial blood vessels combines with plaque accumulation, atherosclerosis can develop. The combination of inflammation and arterial narrowing contributes to the progressive loss of arterial health and compromised circulation. When blood flow is restricted, the risk for blood clots, stroke, and cardiovascular issues significantly increases.
A diagnosis of atherosclerosis and inflammation is made with a battery of imaging tests, including arteriography, which utilizes contrast dye-assisted X-ray to assess arterial health in a patient's limbs. Ultrasounds may also be performed to evaluate blood pressure, especially along the carotid artery located in the neck. Individuals exhibiting atherosclerotic symptoms in their legs may undergo a simple test known as an ankle-brachial index (ABI), which is used to compare blood pressures between the upper and lower extremities. Discrepancies in blood pressure readings or impaired arterial function can be signs of atherosclerosis and inflammation.
One thing to remember with atherosclerosis and inflammation is most people remain asymptomatic, meaning they don’t demonstrate signs of illness, until their health is significantly jeopardized. Once blood flow becomes restricted, individuals develop persistently elevated blood pressure, chest discomfort, and difficulty breathing with minimal physical activity. Symptoms can also depend on the location of the plaques. For instance, if arteries in the neck are narrowed with plaque, a person may experience numbness on one side of his or her body or impaired cognition.
The goal of treatment for atherosclerosis and inflammation is to prevent further arterial plaques. Medications designed to prevent blood clots, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and alleviate fluid retention are usually given. Atherosclerosis and inflammation that contribute to significant arterial narrowing can require surgery to reopen arteries and restore blood flow. Bypass, stenting, or angioplasty of arterial blood vessels may be performed depending on the extent of blockage.