What Is Atherosclerosis?

Coronary heart disease

Atherosclerosis occurs when plaque builds up and hardens inside your arteries. Plaque consists of cholesterol, calcium and other fatty substances which can partially or completely block blood flow to your heart.

Atherosclerosis develops slowly over time and can start to impact your cardiac health in your thirties. With this condition, there is a risk of blood clots forming or the plaque splintering, which can completely block the arteries, cut off oxygen supply, and cause a heart attack or stroke.

What are the Symptoms of Atherosclerosis?

For most people, atherosclerosis won't cause symptoms until the plaque buildup severely narrows or completely blocks an artery.

However, if the plaque is affecting your coronary arteries, you could experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Angina (pain, pressure or squeezing in your chest).
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Irregular heartbeats.
  • Fatigue.

Diagnosis of Atherosclerosis

To accurately diagnose your atherosclerosis, you'll need a thorough physical examination and any of the following tests:

  • Blood tests.
  • Echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart).
  • Chest x-ray.
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG).
  • Cardiac CT Scan.
  • Stress test.
  • Angiography (x-ray of your blood vessels).

Treatment at Penn

Changes to your lifestyle and diet combined with medications may be all you need to help manage your condition. If your atherosclerosis is more advanced, you may require interventional or surgical procedures, such as coronary angioplasty, coronary artery bypass grafting, or a carotid endarterectomy.

When you choose Penn Medicine, you will work with a highly specialized team of cardiologists, electrophysiologists and surgeons who continue to lead and advance the field. Penn surgeons practice at the highest level, treating some of the most complex cardiac surgical cases.

Because of Penn's size and diversity, our clinicians have a depth of skill in procedures ranging from minor to complex. In addition, Penn offers a variety of approaches not commonly available at other medical centers.

Penn Programs & Services for Atherosclerosis

Wilson Szeto, MD, and Michael Acker, MD, performing cardiac surgery
Aortic Center

Our team of specialists treats more people with aortic disease than any other center in the area.

Scientist staring at vials
Preventive Cardiovascular

Specializing in the assessment and management of patients who at risk for heart disease

Physician and patient discussing care
Primary Cardiology

Offers patients with cardiovascular disease the highest level of medical expertise

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