Atherosclerosis – plaque buildup in the arteries – is a dangerous health condition that can cause arterial blockages, leading to angina, heart attack, stroke, and death. Over time, plaque buildup in the arteries can lead to coronary artery disease – the most common type of heart disease and the leading cause of death in the United States. Plaque buildup in the legs can cause peripheral vascular disease, and plaque buildup in the neck can cause carotid artery disease.
What causes blocked arteries?
Arterial blockages are caused by plaque. Plaque is composed of several substances, mainly fat, cholesterol, calcium, fibrin (a protein that develops in blood clotting), and cellular waste. Once plaque gains a foothold in the arteries, cells lining the arterial wall may become inflamed, thereby worsening the blockage.
The buildup of arterial plaque can take place over many years, gradually reducing heart function. Eventually, plaque can rupture and break free of the arterial wall. When the plaque ruptures, blood responds to certain substances in the plaque by forming a blood clot (thrombus). While blood clotting is a normal and healthy response to an open wound, it is problematic when blood clots around a piece of plaque. The resulting thrombus could end up blocking a critical artery, such as a coronary artery or pulmonary artery. Loose plaque and blood clots can cause pulmonary embolism, brain stroke, or heart attack.
What triggers plaque buildup?
The precise reason why plaque buildup begins in the arteries is still unknown. The disease can begin in early childhood or later in adult years. However, researchers do know that plaque buildup is worsened by high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, and elevated levels of blood cholesterol and triglycerides.
What are the symptoms of blocked arteries?
Unfortunately, many individuals with blocked arteries don’t experience any symptoms until coronary artery disease has already set in. Symptoms of coronary artery disease include chest pain (angina), shortness of breath, fatigue, and heart attack. Read more about the symptoms of coronary artery disease.
How is arterial plaque detected?
Small fatty streaks of cholesterol and plaque build up in the arterial walls cannot be detected by conventional cardiovascular tests. These streaks – sometimes called the precursors of atherosclerosis – cannot be seen until they have developed into larger fatty deposits.
Once larger deposits have developed, the cardiologists at Phoenix Heart Center can use advanced diagnostic imaging tests to detect the arterial blockage. These tests include (but are not limited to):
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) – Measures electrical activity in the heart.
- Echocardiogram – Sound waves used to create an image of the heart.
- Chest X-ray – Creates images of heart and lungs.
- Cardiac catheterization – Interventional technique used for biopsy, imaging, and treatment purposes.
- Coronary angiogram – Combined with cardiac catheterization to create an image of the heart.
- Treadmill / stress testing – Monitors changes in heart rate when heart is under stress.
Read more about any of these diagnostic procedures at Phoenix Heart Center.
How are blocked arteries in the heart, leg, and neck treated?
Some arterial blockages may be successfully treated with blood thinners, cholesterol medication, and blood pressure drugs. More severe blockages could require treatment by an interventional cardiologist. Cardiologists at Phoenix Heart Center offer several advanced treatment options for patients with moderate to severe arterial blockages. These include (but are not limited to):
- Angioplasty in the heart and peripheral vessels
- Carotid intervention with embolic protection (for blockages in the neck)
- Intravascular stenting
- Laser recanalization-thrombolysis
Some of these interventional procedures can be performed using a catheter-based technique through the radial artery. Phoenix Heart Center is the first cardiology practice in Arizona to utilize this unique approach, which offers a number of patient and physician benefits. Learn more about these interventional services and others at Phoenix Heart Center.
For more information about diagnosing and treating arterial blockages, contact a Phoenix Heart Center practice location convenient to you. Now serving Central Phoenix, East Mesa, and Tempe. You can also schedule an appointment online.