Atherosclerosis Explained

When fatty material builds up in your arteries, it's known as atherosclerosis. This is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that can cause you to have a heart attack or stroke by impairing blood flow. Here's an overview of the causes, symptoms and treatment options for atherosclerosis:


Common causes of atherosclerosis include smoking, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which damage the lining of your arteries. When the lining, known as the endothelium, is damaged, bad cholesterol can pass through it and join with cells in your artery to form plaque. As plaque deposits increase over time, your arteries can become blocked.


Those with atherosclerosis don't tend to experience symptoms until the narrowing is severe. Common symptoms include chest pain and tightness, and angina is often seen in those with atherosclerosis. Angina develops when your heart isn't getting enough blood, and it can cause pain that spreads from your chest to your arms, neck and stomach.

Treatment Options

Blockages don't resolve on their own, so treatment is necessary to reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. There are currently three main treatment approaches for atherosclerosis. Firstly, your vascular doctor may recommend medication to reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol. This can prevent atherosclerosis from developing any further, and tends to be a suitable option for those with atherosclerosis that's been picked up in the early stages of development.

Secondly, a procedure called angiography can be carried out to widen blocked arteries. Your vascular surgeon will insert a thin tube into the blocked artery and inflate a balloon attached to the tip of the tube. Once the artery has been widened, the surgeon will insert a stent to support the artery wall and prevent it narrowing again.

Thirdly, bypass surgery may be recommended if there is a large area that's blocked. This surgery involves cutting off the blood flow to the blocked area by using healthy artery tissue from another part of your body, typically from your leg, to connect the arteries either side of the blocked area. This allows for improved blood flow, but you'll need to make lifestyle changes to prevent atherosclerosis from developing in your healthy arteries.

Maintaining a healthy weight, giving up smoking, exercising regularly and keeping alcohol consumption within the recommended guidelines can reduce the chance of atherosclerosis causing further blockages after treatment.

If you're experiencing chest pain or breathlessness, see your doctor immediately. If you're concerned about the implications of your lifestyle on your heart health, your doctor can carry out a comprehensive health check to assess your overall health and make any necessary onward referrals, such as to a dietitian or smoking cessation nurse.