Heart disease is a silent killer affecting men and women. At Healthy Steps in Silver Spring, Maryland, Dr. Husna Baksh is on the forefront of treating conditions that lead to heart disease. Atherosclerosis, also known as hardening of the arteries, is one of the conditions Dr. Baksh screens for using the most advanced diagnostic tools and methods. Treatment plans use a multi-pronged approach to help patients minimize their risk of heart attack or stroke.

Atherosclerosis Q & A

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a condition also known as hardening of the arteries. This condition is behind a number of serious and sometimes fatal health risks, including heart attack and stroke. Atherosclerosis occurs when fatty deposits, known as plaques, build up in the arteries of your heart and narrow the openings. Once the arteries are blocked, it becomes difficult or even impossible for blood and needed oxygen to flow through to the heart. The lack of blood flow and oxygen damage the heart muscle, kidneys, and other vital organs.

What are the symptoms of atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis doesn’t really have any symptoms in the early stages of the disease. As the disease progresses, symptoms depend on the blood vessels that are affected and may include:

  • Chest pain
  • Pain in your leg, arm, or other location that has a blocked or partially-blocked artery
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion, if the blockage affects blood flow to your brain
  • Muscle weakness in your legs

What causes atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis has many causes. It’s considered a progressive disease, and for some people, it can start as early as childhood. It usually doesn’t pose a significant health risk until later in life, usually in your 50s or 60s. Doctors don’t know the exact cause of atherosclerosis but some possible culprits include:

  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Abdominal obesity
  • Unhealthy diet

How do you test for atherosclerosis?

Dr. Baksh may recommend blood tests and other lab work to evaluate your cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Depending on your symptoms and risk factors, she may also consider tests that assess your heart and blood vessels, such as:

  • Doppler ultrasound to evaluate the blood flow in your carotid arteries
  • Ankle-brachial ultrasound, which looks for a blockage in your arms or legs
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) to measure the electrical activity in your heart
  • Echocardiogram to see your heart structure, such as the walls and valves
  • A cardiopulmonary exercise test to evaluate your heart’s response to exercise

How is atherosclerosis treated?

Like many health conditions, the most effective treatment for atherosclerosis takes a multifaceted approach. If your disease is significant, you may require referral to a cardiovascular surgeon for further evaluation and treatment.

Dr. Baksh may also recommend lifestyle changes that help reduce your risk of worsening atherosclerosis, such as:

  • Improved diet
  • Weight loss
  • Better stress management
  • Increased physical activity
  • Smoking cessation

You may also need medication to:

  • Lower your cholesterol levels
  • Manage your blood sugar
  • Normalize your blood pressure