Atherosclerosis Diagnosis & Treatments

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Feeling chest pain and pressure in your chest is scary. These are signs of atherosclerosis, a build-up of plaque on the walls of the arteries that send blood to your heart. Plaque makes it harder for blood to get to where it should go.

About half of Americans ages 45-84 have atherosclerosis but don't know it. It's important to know if you're at risk. If not treated, atherosclerosis can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

At UVA Health, you’ll have a team of experienced doctors, surgeons, nurses, and more. They work to make sure you get the most innovative and effective treatments.

Atherosclerosis Diagnosis & Treatment at UVA Health

Most people are diagnosed after developing symptoms. But you can be screened and treated for risk factors.

These tests help us find atherosclerosis:

  • Angiography
  • Cardiac catheterization
  • Ultrasound
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)

Treatment depends on the area of the body most affected. At UVA Health, you'll find the following treatment options.

Treating Atherosclerosis

If you have atherosclerosis, there are steps you can take to treat it. See your options for atherosclerosis treatment in this quick primer from UVA Health. See the treating atherosclerosis transcript.

Medication Lowers Your Risk

Medication can lower your risk factors. They can help to:

  • Stop blood clots from forming
  • Control blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Improve blood flow through narrowed arteries

Catheter-Based Procedures Open Blood Vessels

Your surgeon puts a long, flexible tube, called a catheter, into a heart artery. These procedures include:

  • Balloon angioplasty: A balloon-tipped catheter presses plaque against the wall of the artery; increases blood flow
  • Stenting: A wire mesh tube keeps a damaged artery open
  • Atherectomy: Your surgeon cuts away and removes plaque so blood can flow more easily 

Surgery Reverses the Damage

At UVA Health, our surgeons are highly skilled in surgical options. These include:

Unblocking Narrowed Arteries

Cardiologist Michael Ragosta, MD, walks us through the causes, symptoms, and treatment plans for atherosclerosis. View transcript.

Are You at Risk for Atherosclerosis?

Your chance of getting atherosclerosis goes up with age: 45 and older in men; 55 and older in women. You also have a greater risk if you have:

  • Family history of atherosclerosis
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Poor diet
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes 
  • Obesity
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Metabolic syndrome

What Is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis develops when a sticky substance called plaque builds up inside your arteries. Atherosclerosis is also known as "hardening" of the artery. It causes arteries to narrow and slow or even stop blood flow.

Atherosclerosis can cause serious problems. Depending on which blood vessel is affected, atherosclerosis can lead to:

Repeat damage to the inside wall of an artery causes blood clots. These can decrease blood flow or completely close off the artery.

A clot could also break into clumps and block off smaller arteries.

heart attack occurs when heart tissue supplied by the artery receives no oxygen. 

Long-term atherosclerosis can also cause arteries to weaken or bulge. This can cause an aneurysm.

    Symptoms of Atherosclerosis

    If you have early atherosclerosis, you may not have any symptoms. For many, the earliest symptom is chest pain. 

    Later symptoms depend on where atherosclerosis forms. For example:

    • Coronary arteries of the heart may cause symptoms of heart disease. This includes chest pain.
    • Arteries to the brain may cause symptoms of a stroke. These include weakness, vision problems, speech problems, or headaches.
    • Arteries in the lower extremities may cause pain in the legs or feet and trouble walking.