By Dr. Gaurav Minocha, Cardiology,
The narrowing and hardening of the artery walls due to plaque (a substance made up of cholesterol, calcium, fats and other debris in the bloodstream) build-up is called atherosclerosis. This process of substance build-up happens gradually, and puts the flow of blood at risk.
In fact, atherosclerosis is one of the most common reasons for strokes, heart attacks and other cardiovascular disorders.
The causes of atherosclerosis include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- High levels of sugar in blood
Areas of the artery that are damaged are likely to have plaque build up which can eventually break open. When the plaque breaks open, blood cell fragments called thrombocytes (or platelets) accumulate at the affected area. These fragments can then stick together, forming blood clots.
The sign and symptoms of atherosclerosis depend upon the arteries affected:
- If plaques narrow the arteries that supply oxygen-enriched blood to the heart (the coronary artery), a common symptom may be chest pain, or angina. Other symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Problems in the rhythm of heartbeats
- If the arteries sending blood to your brain (carotid artery) are affected, the symptoms include:
- Sudden weakness
- Severe and sudden headache
- If the arteries supplying blood to pelvis, arms and legs (peripheral arteries) are affected, the symptoms may include:
- Renal arteries provide oxygenated blood to the kidneys. When they are affected, chronic kidney disease develops and the symptoms include:
- Infrequent urination
- Appetite loss
- Swollen limbs
The only ways to treat plaque formation are lifestyle changes and medications:
- Stop smoking and adopt a healthy lifestyle which means exercising daily for about an hour and maintaining a proper diet.
- Drugs to lower cholesterol and high blood pressure levels are also taken to lower the risk of heart attacks. If you wish to discuss about any specific problem, you can consult a cardiologist and ask a free question.
Blood flows in specific tubes or channels commonly known as blood vessels. When there is a cut in these blood vessels, blood oozes out either internally or externally if there is an outlet. Blood also has a self-control mechanism in that it forms a clot and stops further loss of blood. There are specific times like clotting and bleeding time, which happens within a few minutes usually. In a person who has clotting problems, the chances of blood clotting are higher. In these people, the blood can clot within the blood vessels. This narrows the space available for free flow of blood and can obstruct blood flow to the target organ. If this happens to vital organs like the heart or brain, it can cause a heart attack or stroke/paralysis. To prevent this from happening, blood thinners are used. This basically reduces the tendency for blood to clot. Aspirin and clopidogrel are the most commonly used blood thinners.
A word of caution though – people on blood thinners should take care to not get hurt or cut. They also should stop these prior to any surgery including dental procedures. Else, it would be very difficult to control bleeding, even leading to death in severe cases.