What are the symptoms and treatment options for atherosclerosis?

Symptom Database

Atherosclerosis is a common cardiovascular disease characterized by the buildup of plaque in the arteries, leading to artery blockage and potentially causing heart disease. This condition is often associated with high cholesterol levels and can result in arterial narrowing, particularly in the blood vessels supplying the heart, leading to a condition known as coronary artery disease. Understanding the symptoms and treatment options for atherosclerosis is crucial for managing the disease and reducing the risk of complications.

Symptoms of Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis typically develops over time and may not cause noticeable symptoms until the arteries are significantly narrowed or blocked. The symptoms experienced can vary depending on the affected arteries and the extent of the blockage. Some common symptoms of atherosclerosis include:

  • Chest pain or angina: This occurs when the blood flow to the heart is restricted, causing discomfort or pain in the chest.
  • Shortness of breath: When the arteries supplying the lungs are affected, it can lead to difficulty in breathing.
  • Leg pain or cramping: Atherosclerosis in the arteries of the legs can cause pain, numbness, or weakness in the legs and feet.
  • Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs: If the arteries leading to the brain are affected, it can result in stroke-like symptoms such as weakness or numbness in the limbs.
  • High blood pressure: Atherosclerosis can contribute to an increase in blood pressure, which can further damage the arteries.

Diagnosis of Atherosclerosis

Diagnosing atherosclerosis involves a combination of medical history evaluation, physical examination, and diagnostic tests. A healthcare professional may ask about symptoms, risk factors, and family history of cardiovascular disease. They may also perform a physical examination to check for signs of arterial narrowing or blockage.

Several diagnostic tests can help confirm the presence of atherosclerosis and assess its severity:

  • Cholesterol screening: Blood tests can measure cholesterol levels, including LDL (bad) cholesterol, which is a major risk factor for atherosclerosis.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG): This test records the electrical activity of the heart and can detect any abnormalities caused by reduced blood flow.
  • Echocardiogram: This ultrasound test uses sound waves to create images of the heart and can help evaluate its structure and function.
  • Angiography: This invasive procedure involves injecting a contrast dye into the arteries and taking X-ray images to visualize any blockages or narrowing.

Treatment Options for Atherosclerosis

While atherosclerosis cannot be completely cured, treatment aims to manage symptoms, slow down the progression of the disease, and reduce the risk of complications. The treatment options for atherosclerosis may include:

Lifestyle Changes

Adopting a healthy lifestyle is crucial in managing atherosclerosis. Some lifestyle changes that can help include:

  • Following a healthy diet: A diet low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, and sodium can help control cholesterol levels and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Regular exercise: Engaging in physical activity for at least 30 minutes most days of the week can improve cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of atherosclerosis.
  • Quitting smoking: Smoking damages the blood vessels and accelerates the progression of atherosclerosis. Quitting smoking is essential for managing the disease.
  • Managing stress: Chronic stress can contribute to the development and progression of atherosclerosis. Finding healthy ways to manage stress, such as through relaxation techniques or counseling, is important.


Medications may be prescribed to manage symptoms and reduce the risk of complications associated with atherosclerosis. Some common medications used include:

  • Statins: These drugs help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of plaque buildup.
  • Antiplatelet drugs: Medications like aspirin can help prevent blood clots from forming and reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.
  • Blood pressure medications: If high blood pressure is present, medications may be prescribed to control it and protect the arteries.

Surgery and Procedures

In some cases, surgical interventions or procedures may be necessary to treat severe atherosclerosis. These options include:

  • Angioplasty and stenting: This procedure involves inserting a balloon-like device into the blocked artery to widen it and placing a stent to keep it open.
  • Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG): In this surgery, a healthy blood vessel is taken from another part of the body and used to bypass the blocked coronary artery, restoring blood flow to the heart.

In conclusion, atherosclerosis is a progressive disease that can lead to serious complications if left untreated. Recognizing the symptoms and seeking early diagnosis is crucial for effective management. By making lifestyle changes, taking prescribed medications, and, in some cases, undergoing surgical interventions, individuals with atherosclerosis can reduce the risk of complications and improve their overall cardiovascular health.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
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