What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis (sometimes called “hardening” or “clogging” of the arteries) is the buildup of cholesterol, fatty cells and inflammatory deposits (called plaque) on the inner walls of the arteries that restrict blood flow to the heart. Atherosclerosis can affect the arteries in the heart, legs, brain, kidneys and other organs.

The type of atherosclerosis known as peripheral arterial disease (PAD), peripheral vascular disease (PVD) and lower extremity vascular disease occurs in the vessels that carry blood to the arms and . In healthy arteries, a smooth lining prevents blood from clotting and promotes steady blood flow. In PAD/PVD, the arteries slowly become narrowed or blocked when plaque gradually forms inside the artery walls. If the arteries become narrowed or blocked, blood cannot get through to nourish the tissues, causing the muscles of the lower extremities to cramp and lose strength. This process of cramping in the legs when walking is called “intermittent claudication.”

Blockage in arteries to the kidneys and intestines can lead to poor blood flow to these organs and ultimately tissue damage.The rate at which atherosclerosis progresses varies with each individual and depends on many factors, including where in the body the plaque has formed and the person’s overall health.

Reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional.

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