Atherosclerosis or atherosclerosis is the narrowing and hardening of the arteries due to plaque buildup in the walls of the blood vessels. This condition is a common cause of coronary heart disease ( atherosclerosis heart disease ).

Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients to and from the heart, as well as to all other organs. Blockage of the arteries due to the buildup of cholesterol plaque will block blood flow to the organs of the body.

At first, atherosclerosis does not cause any symptoms. New symptoms appear when blood flow to organs or body tissues is blocked. The process of plaque buildup until the symptoms of atherosclerosis appear can take years.

Causes of Atherosclerosis

The exact cause of atherosclerosis isn't known, but the disease begins when damage or injury occurs to the inner lining of the arteries. This damage can be caused by:

  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Inflammation from certain diseases, such as lupus
  • Obesity
  • Smoking habit

When the inner lining of the arteries is damaged, fat and other substances can easily stick and clot there. Over time, these clots or plaques continue to accumulate and harden so that the arteries narrow and stiffen.

Narrowing of blood vessels will inhibit the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the body's organs. This makes the function of these organs decrease, even stop, depending on how severe the constriction is.

The development of atherosclerosis to cause symptoms is very slow, even up to decades. However, the following conditions can make a person more at risk or develop atherosclerosis faster:

  • Age over 40 or 50 years
  • Unhealthy lifestyle, such as lazy to move or rarely exercise
  • Unhealthy diet and frequent consumption of alcoholic beverages
  • Prolonged stress
  • Family history of atherosclerosis

Symptoms and Complications of Atherosclerosis

At first, atherosclerosis does not cause symptoms, until the arteries are very narrow and even closed. As a result, the arteries are no longer able to deliver sufficient amounts of blood to the organs of the body.

Because it takes many years for symptoms to appear, many people are not aware that they have atherosclerosis until complications arise. Complications that arise can vary, depending on the location of atherosclerosis, including:

Atherosclerosis in the heart

Atherosclerosis in the heart can cause coronary heart disease and heart attacks . Both disorders have a number of similar symptoms, namely:

  • Chest pain that feels like pressure or squeezing ( angina )
  • Pain or pressure in the shoulders, arms, jaw, or back
  • Heart rhythm disturbances ( arrhythmias )
  • Shortness of breath, sweating and restlessness

Atherosclerosis in the limbs

Atherosclerosis in the legs or arms can cause peripheral arterial disease . This disorder is characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Pain, cramps, to numbness in the arm or leg area
  • Pain when walking and relieved by rest ( intermittent claudication )
  • The lower limbs feel cold
  • Sores on the thumb, sole, or foot that don't heal

Atherosclerosis in the brain

If it occurs in the blood vessels in the brain, atherosclerosis can cause a stroke , which is characterized by symptoms in the form of:

  • Numbness to paralysis on one side of the face, arm, or leg
  • Confusion and difficulty speaking clearly
  • Loss of vision in one eye or both eyes
  • Loss of coordination and balance
  • Dizziness and severe headache
  • Difficulty breathing and loss of consciousness

Atherosclerosis in the kidney

Plaque buildup in the arteries in the kidneys can cause kidney failure . This disorder can be recognized by a number of symptoms, such as:

  • Rarely urinate
  • Constant nausea
  • The body feels very tired and often sleepy
  • Swollen limbs
  • Confused and hard to concentrate
  • Shortness of breath and chest pain

When to see a doctor

Immediately consult a doctor if you experience the symptoms mentioned above. You also need to go to the emergency room immediately if you experience symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. Both of these conditions must be treated immediately, because it can be fatal if you wait a long time.

If you have diabetes or hypertension , take regular checks with your doctor to monitor the condition of the disease and prevent possible complications of atherosclerosis.

If you are a smoker , try to stop the habit. Smoking can not only cause atherosclerosis, but also other diseases. If quitting smoking is very difficult, go to the doctor to join the smoking cessation program.

Diagnosis of Atherosclerosis

The doctor will ask about the patient's symptoms and perform a physical examination. Physical examination is done by checking the patient's pulse, heart rate, and blood pressure. The doctor will also check for the possibility that the patient has wounds that are slow or do not heal.

If the patient is suspected of having atherosclerosis, the doctor will perform a number of supporting tests to confirm it, such as:

  • Blood test, to see cholesterol and blood sugar levels
  • Ankle-brachial index (ABI), which is a blood pressure index comparison test of the legs and arms, to check for blocked arteries in the leg area
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) , to check the electrical activity of the heart and see signs of coronary heart disease ( atherosclerosis heart disease )
  • Doppler ultrasound, to detect clogged arteries in the legs using sound waves
  • Stress test or treadmill ECG examination , to check the electrical activity of the heart and blood pressure during physical activity
  • Angiography , which is an examination of the condition of the heart arteries by injecting a contrast substance (dye) into the arteries, so that they can be seen clearly through X-rays
  • Scans with magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) and CT scans , to check the condition of the arteries

Atherosclerosis Treatment

Treatment of atherosclerosis can be done with three methods, namely lifestyle changes, drugs, and medical procedures.

Changes in daily lifestyle is the main thing that needs to be done. Patients are advised to exercise more often to improve heart and blood vessel health, and reduce consumption of foods high in cholesterol.

Apart from suggesting lifestyle changes, doctors can also give medicines to prevent atherosclerosis from getting worse. These drugs can be:

  • Medicines to prevent blood clots, such as aspirin
  • Medications to lower blood pressure, such as beta blockers , calcium channel blockers, and diuretics
  • Cholesterol-lowering drugs , such as statins and fibrates
  • Medicines to prevent narrowing of the arteries, such as ACE inhibitors
  • Drugs to control diseases that can cause atherosclerosis, such as diabetes medications to maintain blood sugar levels.

In severe cases of atherosclerosis, your doctor may suggest treatment with:

  • Ring placement ( stent ) and angioplasty
    This procedure is used to open a blocked or narrowed artery, then place a small tube there so that blood flow returns smoothly.
  • Fibrinolytic
    therapy This therapy is performed to treat blocked arteries due to blood clots, by giving dissolving drugs or blood clot breakers ( fibrinolytics ).
  • Bypass surgery
    This procedure is performed by bypassing blocked blood vessels using blood vessels from other parts of the body or synthetic-made hoses.
  • Endarterectomy This
    procedure is performed to remove fat deposits on the narrowed artery walls. Typically, this procedure is performed on an artery in the neck.
  • Arterectomy
    This procedure is performed to remove plaque in the arteries by using a catheter with a sharp blade at one end.

Prevention of Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis can be prevented by adopting a healthy lifestyle . Ways that can be done include:

  • Have a healthy diet with balanced nutrition that is rich in fiber and complex carbohydrates , and low in cholesterol
  • Avoid or limit the consumption of alcoholic beverages
  • Exercise for 30 minutes per day, at least 5 days a week
  • Quit smoking
  • Maintain body weight within the ideal range
  • Manage stress well, for example by relaxation (relaxing tense muscles) or meditation
  • Get enough rest and sleep
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