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Atherosclerosis: What’s Happening Inside Your Arteries?

Could atherosclerosis already be clogging your arteries?
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WebMD Feature

Ever wish you could see inside your arteries? These blood vessels deliver oxygen-rich blood to every corner of our bodies. Maintaining the flow is essential to life and health.

Atherosclerosis causes narrowing and hardening of the arteries, creating slowdowns in blood flow. Even worse, atherosclerosis can trigger sudden blood clots. Heart attacks and strokes are the often-deadly result.

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If we could see what was going on in our arteries, we might think twice about our lifestyle choices. Could atherosclerosis be clogging your arteries? Take a look on this amazing voyage into your body's highway system.

Atherosclerosis: Certain Arteries More Vulnerable

The entire body depends on arteries for blood flow. Atherosclerosis acts throughout the body but is more selective as to where it becomes serious.

"One of the paradoxes of atherosclerosis is that although it acts diffusely, blockages tend to form only in certain places," according to Saul Schaefer, MD, professor of medicine at the University of California-Davis.

The aorta is the main artery of the body. After emerging from the heart, the aorta splits into dozens of branches. Complications from atherosclerosis tend to occur in a few areas:

  • The coronary arteries bring blood to the heart. A sudden blood clot in a coronary artery can cause a myocardial infarction, or heart attack. Stable blockages here can sometimes cause angina, or chest pain.
  • The carotid, vertebral, and cerebral arteries carry blood to the brain. Atherosclerosis here can cause strokes.
  • The femoral arteries carry blood to the legs. Atherosclerosis in these arteries, or their branches, can cause peripheral arterial disease.

The Endothelium: Canary in a Coal Mine?

All our arteries are lined by special tissue called endothelium. Healthy endothelium dilates arteries widely during exercise. It also prevents atherosclerosis or blood clots from developing.

Exposure to certain risk factors can damage the endothelium. Smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure are the most well known.

Using tests not widely available, researchers can detect problems in the endothelium before atherosclerosis ever develops. "Most likely, damaged areas of endothelium are where atherosclerosis begins," says Schaefer.

You can't feel problems in your endothelium. But "if you're sedentary, smoke, have diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol, you likely have some endothelial dysfunction," according to Schaefer. That can set you up for developing atherosclerosis.

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