What is an atheroma?
An atheroma is a fatty substance that builds up in your arteries over time. An atheroma is more commonly known as atherosclerotic plaque, or simply plaque. Atheromas form along the inside lining of your arteries and interrupt blood flow through your body. Atheromas are dangerous because:
- They gradually take up more space inside your artery. This leaves less room for blood to flow.
- They can rupture and cause a blood clot to form. The clot may block blood flow at that spot. Or, the clot may travel somewhere else in your body and block blood flow there.
Is atheroma the same as plaque?
Yes. These two words both refer to the fatty substance that lines your artery walls.
What is an atheroma made of?
Atheromas are made of many substances that circulate in your blood. These include:
- Blood cells.
- Cholesterol and other fats.
- Inflammatory cells.
Calcium is a substance that hardens the atheroma. That’s why people with plaque buildup are known to have “hardening of the arteries.”
What is aortic atheroma?
Aortic atheroma refers to plaque that builds up in your aorta. This condition is called atherosclerosis of the aorta. Your aorta is the largest artery in your body. It extends upward from your heart and then curves downward through your chest and belly. Plaque buildup in your aorta raises your risk of many conditions, including:
- Aortic aneurysm.
- Heart attack.
Is atheroma a tumor?
No, atheroma isn’t a tumor. It’s a substance that builds up in your arteries.
It can be easy to confuse different medical terms. “Atheroma” looks like the names of some tumors, like carcinoma. But atheroma isn’t related to tumors or cancer. It’s related to your blood vessels and your heart health.
What causes atheromas to form?
Atheromas form because your artery’s inner lining (endothelium) becomes damaged. Scientists continue to learn more about what causes endothelial damage. But it’s clear that once your endothelium is damaged, an atheroma begins to form at the site. And it grows over time.
Risk factors for atheroma formation and growth include:
- Conditions that cause inflammation, like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Diet high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol.
- High blood pressure.
- High cholesterol.
- High triglycerides.
- Older age. People assigned male at birth face a higher risk after age 45. People assigned female at birth face a higher risk after age 55.
- Smoking and tobacco use.
Atheromas can form anywhere in your arteries. But they’re more likely to form near branch points (where one artery extends from another) or bifurcations (where one artery splits into two).
Think of your arteries like a complex network of roads. Usually, traffic builds up at intersections rather than in areas where the road is wide open with no traffic lights. When it comes to your arteries, plaque usually builds up near the spots where arteries intersect. Scientists continue to study exactly why plaque tends to build up near these intersections.
What is the difference between atheroma and atherosclerosis?
Here’s the short version: Atheroma is a substance, and atherosclerosis is a disease.
Now here’s a bit more detail. Atheroma refers to the fatty material that clogs your arteries. It builds up over time and can lead to complications. Atheroma (plaque) is the defining feature of a disease called atherosclerosis. When you have atherosclerosis, you have plaque buildup in your arteries. The plaque gets bigger slowly and silently over the years.
Plaque buildup can begin when you’re in your teens or 20s, and it continues throughout your life. It’s a result of many factors like diet, lifestyle and genetics. But the process happens more quickly in some people compared with others. And some people face complications earlier in life. This is usually due to risk factors like smoking or a family history of early heart disease.
Atherosclerosis can interfere with blood flow in many different parts of your body. As the atheromas get bigger, they take up more space in your arteries. Over time, this plaque buildup may lead to:
- Aortoiliac occlusive disease.
- Carotid artery disease.
- Coronary artery disease.
- Mesenteric ischemia.
- Peripheral artery disease.
- Renal artery disease.
- Vertebral artery disease.
It’s often hard to know if you have plaque buildup since you may not feel any symptoms. In fact, you probably won’t notice symptoms until your arteries are at least 70% clogged. Symptoms depend on which arteries are clogged.
|Arteries affected||Possible symptoms|
|Arteries that supply blood to your heart (coronary arteries).||Chest pain or discomfort that starts when you’re active and goes away when you rest (stable angina).|
|Arteries that supply blood to your pelvis and legs (iliac or femoral arteries).||Leg pain that starts when you’re active and goes away when you rest (claudication).|
|Arteries that supply blood to your brain (carotid arteries).||Stroke.|
|Arteries that supply blood to your intestines (mesenteric arteries).||Stomach pain after you eat (postprandial cramps, also known as “abdominal angina”).|
|Arteries that supply blood to your kidneys (renal arteries).||Secondary hypertension and potentially reduced kidney function.|
Because atheromas can grow without causing symptoms, it’s important to see your healthcare provider every year. Your provider will talk with you about your risk factors and your family history of heart disease. They may also run tests to check your heart and blood vessels.
Can you reverse atheromas?
Atheromas can’t be reversed once they’ve formed. But there’s a lot you can do to slow down the progression of atherosclerosis. Lifestyle changes and medications play a big role. If you’ve been diagnosed with atherosclerosis, talk with your provider about how to manage your condition.
In general, here are some tips for slowing down atheroma buildup in your arteries:
- Don’t smoke or use tobacco products. Tobacco use is a huge risk factor for cardiovascular diseases. Talk with your provider about resources to help you quit.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. Avoid foods high in saturated fat. These include fatty meats and full-fat dairy products. Eliminate any foods containing trans fat (like fast food and packaged convenience foods). Limit your intake of sugar, sodium and refined carbohydrates (like white bread).
- Exercise. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. This could mean you take a 30-minute walk five days per week. Or, find other activities you enjoy, like cycling or swimming. It’s important to check with your provider before starting a new exercise plan.
- Take your medications as prescribed. Medications can help you manage risk factors for atherosclerosis. Your provider may prescribe blood pressure medication, cholesterol medication or other drugs. If you experience side effects, talk with your provider right away. Never stop taking a medication without talking to your provider first.
- Visit your healthcare provider for yearly checkups. Your provider will assess your risk for atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular diseases. Be sure to keep your follow-up appointments, and share any questions or concerns you have.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Whether you call it atheroma or plaque, that fatty substance in your arteries isn’t beneficial to your health. But in the battle against atherosclerosis, you’re not alone. Talk with your healthcare provider about ways to slow the progression of plaque buildup in your arteries. Lifestyle changes like quitting smoking and eating healthy foods can help protect your arteries for years to come.
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