What is atherosclerosis?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner
When plaque begins to accumulate in the arteries, the condition is called atherosclerosis. Plaque is caused by high cholesterol.  Your arteries are responsible for delivering oxygen to the various areas of the body. If these blood vessels become blocked, major health complications can develop like strokes or heart attacks

Coronary Artery Disease, Coronary Heart Disease, Ischemic Heart Disease and Arteriosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease are different names for the same disease. The disease is caused by atherosclerosis, a buildup of fatty deposits in the coronary arteries.

Coronary arteries supply blood to the heart. When a blockage occurs in a coronary artery, blood flow to the heart muscle is decreased. The decrease becomes most evident during exertion, when the heart muscle works harder and needs more oxygen-enriched blood. By preventing the much needed increase in blood flow, a blockage deprives the heart of oxygen, thereby causing the heart muscle to hurt. Chest pain from this scenario is called angina or Angina Pectoris. If cell death occurs, then it is called an infarction. A heart attack is cell death of heart muscle (myocardium) therefore a heart attack is called a Myocardial Infarction.

The condition that causes Coronary Artery Disease, angina and heart attacks is called atherosclerosis, a more general term for the hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is one type of arteriosclerosis that can cause a buildup of fatty material (atheromas and plaques) along the inner lining of arteries.

The blockages can cause a number of different outcomes, depending on where they occur:

  • When the blockage occurs in a coronary artery, it can cause chest pain (angina).
  • When the blockage is complete, it may cause a heart attack (Myocardial Infarction or MI).
  • When the blockage occurs in one of the arteries close to the brain, a stroke can occur.
  • When the blockage occurs in a leg artery, it can cause Peripheral Vascular Disease and can cause pain while walking called intermittent claudication.

Hardening of the arteries takes many years to develop - decades really - and the condition can easily go unnoticed. Symptoms, such as angina, can indicate the condition gradually. However, it also can go unnoticed until it becomes evident in a sudden and severe way - such as a heart attack.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.