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Things You Need to Know about Clogged Arteries

By: Thaddeus M. Averilla, MDThings You Need to Know about Clogged Arteries

“Clogged arteries” is a layman’s term for a medical condition called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is derived from the Greek words athero which means gruel or wax and sclerosis which means hardening. Atherosclerosis refers to the build-up of plaque inside the arteries. It usually starts as fatty streaks inside the arteries. These fatty streaks are made up of high concentrations of lipids or fats. There are also other causes of “clogged arteries” but atherosclerosis is the most common culprit. In fact, it is the most common cause of arterial vascular diseases like heart attack, stroke, and peripheral arterial occlusive disease.

Atherosclerosis and arteries

The arteries in the body are tube-like structures or pipes that branch out from the heart. The main function of the arteries is to carry blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the organs and tissues in the body. Arteries, together with the heart, veins, and capillaries comprise the circulatory system. Atherosclerosis leads to impaired blood flow causing the diminished supply of oxygen and nutrients to the different organs. A very critical event in the progression of atherosclerosis is called thrombosis which is the complete obstruction or blockade of the circulation in the affected artery.  Atherosclerosis is mainly an arterial vascular disease and its exact cause is still unknown despite current medical advances. However, there are multiple risk factors that predispose one to atherosclerosis, plaque progression, and thrombosis.

Risk Factors for atherosclerosis

The most common risk factors for atherosclerosis include family history, high levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) in the blood, the presence of diabetes mellitus, hypertension, cigarette smoking, sedentary lifestyle, obesity and dietary deficiencies of antioxidants.

Symptoms and signs of atherosclerosis

Symptoms and signs of atherosclerosis depend on the organ involved and severity of obstruction. Atherosclerosis causes symptoms by arterial obstruction, embolization of plaque material, and weakening with rupture of the arterial wall.  Based on the organs involved, atherosclerosis is generally classified as coronary atherosclerosis (affecting the heart) and non-coronary atherosclerosis (affecting all other organs except the heart).

RISK FACTORS FOR ATHEROSCLEROSIS

MEASURES TO LOWER THE RISK OF ATHEROSCLEROSIS

Smoking

Smoking cessation

Obesity

Target ideal body weight, healthy lifestyle (diet and regular exercise)

Hypertension

Target normal and stable blood pressure

Diabetes

Target controlled blood sugar levels

High LDL levels (bad cholesterol)

Target normal LDL levels

Dietary deficiencies of antioxidants

Intake of food rich in flavonoids such as tea and wine

Coronary atherosclerosis

Coronary arteries are the arteries that supply the heart with blood rich in oxygen and nutrients. Coronary artery atherosclerosis is a principal cause of coronary artery disease and is said to be the single largest cause of death in developed countries. Obstruction of the coronary arteries may present as chest pain or tightness, difficulty of breathing, weakness, tiredness and reduced exertional capacity.  In long-standing coronary artery disease, it can present with chronic congestive symptoms such as edema or swelling of both feet, weight gain, and abdominal enlargement. Complete coronary artery obstruction, in some cases, may cause sudden death.

Non-coronary atherosclerosis

Other arteries in the body may also be affected by atherosclerosis. In fact, studies have shown that if one artery has atherosclerosis, there is a high likelihood that other arteries in the different organs are obstructed as well. The signs and symptoms of non-coronary atherosclerosis are highly variable.

Cerebral arteries form a complex and elaborate arterial system that supplies the brain with blood rich in oxygen and nutrients.  Obstruction of a branch of cerebral arteries may lead to headache, dizziness, blurring of vision, loss of consciousness, paralysis and in extreme cases, coma and death.

Atherosclerosis can also affect the abdominal aorta, a major blood vessel in the abdomen. Interestingly, atherosclerosis in the abdominal aorta predispose to the weakening of the wall of the said blood vessel leading to the ballooning of the affected artery, an occurrence called abdominal aortic aneurysm. This aneurysm may rupture and cause excessive bleeding. If not immediately addressed, ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm can lead to death. 

Atherosclerosis of the arterial branches of the abdominal aorta that supply the stomach and intestines can present with abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting of blood, passage of bloody stools, nutritional deficiencies, weakness and weight loss.

Arteries that supply the legs can also be occluded and can present as weak pulses, poorly healing wound and leg pain that comes and goes.

Lowering the Risk of atherosclerosis

In an article published in the American Journal of Medicine, Dr. Lewis stated that the risk factors for atherosclerosis should be monitored, beginning in childhood, even in asymptomatic patients. A healthy lifestyle that includes eating a healthy diet, maintaining ideal body weight, engaging in regular exercise and quitting smoking can lower the risk. Among patients with hypertension, maintaining a normal and stable blood pressure can also decrease the risk. Among patients with diabetes, controlled blood sugar levels are highly recommended. Patients with high LDL (bad cholesterol) levels should also target normal levels to lower the risk as well. 

For better health outcomes, it is recommended to always consult a doctor should one has symptoms of “clogged arteries” or risk factors associated with atherosclerosis.

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