Plaque On The Wall

Severe atherosclerosis can lead to heart attack, stroke, or limb loss

If you’re 50 years old or above, you’ve got some plaque in your blood vessels.

Yes, you too.

Everyone eventually has plaque, which is the buildup of fatty deposits within the artery wall. When this causes narrowing and hardening of the arteries, it is called atherosclerosis. This is a slow but progressive condition that can reduce blood flow and therefore oxygen to your body’s cells and tissues. For many people, the condition never becomes symptomatic.

“Atherosclerosis has to reach a certain degree before patients experience symptoms,” says vascular surgeon Kristy Wiebke, DO, of St. Joseph's/Candler Physician Network - Vascular Specialists. “Typically we see symptoms occur in older people, the obese, diabetics, and smokers. Family history can also be a risk factor.”

If the plaque grows to a size that causes blockages in the heart’s arteries, it can lead to angina, or chest pain. Or, poor circulation in the legs due to atherosclerosis can make walking painful and can affect the body’s ability to heal wounds on the limbs.


Plaque’s Sudden Attack

While the breaking of a blockage may sound like a good thing, it is actually the worst development of atherosclerosis. The piece of plaque can get stuck in the bloodstream or cause the blood to clot. If the blood flow is blocked from the heart, a person will suffer a heart attack. If blocked from the brain, a stroke.

In cases of severe atherosclerosis in the legs, the inability to heal wounds can lead to infection (gangrene) and potentially limb loss.

Dr. Wiebke helps patients reduce their risk of these severe outcomes through a combination of medication and lifestyle changes.

“If the symptoms are mild to moderate, medications that treat high cholesterol have been show to slow the progression of atherosclerosis,” Wiebke says. “Blood pressure control is also very important. And we may recommend that the patient take aspirin every day to prevent platelet clotting.”

Exercising daily, improving their diet, and not smoking are things patients can do on their own, under the guidance of their physician, to lower their risk of heart attack and stroke and to relieve the painful symptoms of atherosclerosis.

If Surgery Is Needed

“We have multiple methods of treating blockages caused by plaque,” Wiebke says. “We can open up the blood vessels and remove the plaque. Or we re-route the blood flow around the blockage. There have been great advancements in endovascular therapy, in which we treat the blood vessel from within, using balloons and stents to open up the blocked artery.”

Medical advances are changing Dr. Wiebke’s field, and more are on the horizon.

“Vascular surgery continues to evolve as the technology improves,” she says. “It’s part of why I chose the field. Endovascular treatment can often replace procedures that once required big incisions and long hospital stays.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Wiebke hopes patients will understand how much power they have to prevent severe atherosclerosis and its effects.

“I try to remind my patients that they, not their condition, can be the most significant factor in their health,” Wiebke says. “Manage your blood pressure, lose weight, exercise, and don’t smoke. You can be your own biggest advocate for prolonged life.”

Learn more about atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease by taking our quiz.

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