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Atherosclerosis is the hardening of a blood vessel as a result of plaque buildup. Fatty deposits of cholesterol and calcium form plaque, which causes arteries to narrow and slow or even stop blood flow. Dependent upon the location of the blockage, it can cause:

  • Coronary heart disease — Loss of blood to areas of the heart
  • Stroke — Loss of blood to areas of the brain
  • Peripheral vascular disease — Loss of blood to the extremities
Normal artery compared to artery by atherosclerosis
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Repeated damage to the inner wall of an artery causes blood clots, called thrombi. They can lead to a further decrease in blood flow or becomes so large that it completely closes off the artery. It could also break into clumps, called emboli, and block off smaller arteries.

A heart attack occurs when the tissue supplied by the artery receives no oxygen. Long-term atherosclerosis can also cause arteries to weaken or bulge, which can cause an aneurysm.

Are You at Risk?

Factors that increase your chance of getting atherosclerosis include:

  • Family history of the disease
  • Age 45 years and older in men; 55 years and older in women
  • Male gender
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Poor diet
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes 
  • Obesity
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Metabolic syndrome

Symptoms of Atherosclerosis

Early atherosclerosis doesn't have any symptoms. Symptoms may begin to appear as the arteries harden or become narrower or if a clot blocks a blood vessel or a large blockage breaks free.

Symptoms depend on which arteries are affected. For example:

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

Diagnosis & Treatment at UVA

Most people are diagnosed after they develop symptoms, but you can be screened and treated for risk factors.

These tests evaluate atherosclerotic arteries:

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

Treatment depends on the area of the body most affected. We offer the following treatment options.


Medication can lower your risk factors and help to:

  • Stop the formation of blood clots
  • Control blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Improve blood flow through narrowed arteries

Catheter-based Procedures

Your surgeon inserts a catheter into an artery, most often for arteries in the heart. These procedures include:

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


Surgical options include:

  • Arterioplasty — Repair of an aneurysm, usually done with synthetic tissue
  • Bypass — The creation of an alternate route for blood flow
  • Endarterectomy — The removal of the lining of an artery obstructed with large plaques. This surgery helps to improve blood flow. It's most often performed on:
    • Carotid arteries in the neck that supply the brain
    • The aorta
    • Iliac and femoral arteries of the legs
    • Renal arteries that supply the kidneys with blood

Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.