Also medically called atherosclerosis, it is a condition in which fatty deposits called “plaques” build up inside the arteries in the body. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart out to the rest of the body.
This condition is the reason most people have a heart attack or a stroke. These fats can get too big and reduce blood flow to certain body parts which usually causes initial symptoms (such as pain) in the part of the body that is not getting enough blood.
These fatty deposits can also break open or rupture within blood vessels (arteries) leading to formation of tinny clots inside the vessel. These tinny clots can block blood from moving past the clot or can travel and cause a blockage in another organ.
When a body organ or part is not getting enough blood supply, it starts to ‘die away’ and this is what happens to the different organs and structures when these fatty deposits block blood supply to them.
This condition can affect arteries all over the body. These fatty deposits can form in the arteries that carry blood to the brain leading to a stroke, or form in the blood vessels carrying blood to the heart causing chest pain and eventually a heart attack. They can also form in the arteries of the kidneys causing kidney disease and high blood pressure. Deposition of these fatty material in the arteries that carry blood to the arms and legs is another common condition and people with this condition sometimes have pain, tingling, or numbness in their legs when they walk, relieved by resting and this can eventually lead to loss of part of the limb (amputation) when blood supply to it is greatly compromised by the fatty deposit.
Everyone can suffer from this condition, although some groups of people are known to be at a much higher risk than the other populations. These include; people with high blood cholesterol level, high blood pressure, diabetes and smokers. People who are obese, living a sedentary lifestyle (little physical exercises), have high fat diet or family history of atherosclerosis (mother or father who got atherosclerosis before the age of 50) are at a much increased risk of suffering from the condition.
Clinicians can diagnose this disease by listening to the history of one’s complaints, thorough medical examination, to look out for the complications of the disease, and further tests can be carried out to confirm the condition and determine the extent of any organ or tissue damage by the condition.
Blood tests to check for lipid levels are usually done if one is suspected to have atherosclerosis. Tests to determine the functioning of the heart, blood vessels of the limbs can be done depending on the doctor’s findings during the consultation. Investigations such as CT scan of the head can be done if stroke is suspected in the individual.
The risk of developing this condition can be greatly lowered, and if one has been diagnosed with it already, the severity of the disease can be reduced by lifestyle modification.
This can be done through ways such as; proper control of diabetes and hypertension (through taking the medicines as prescribed). Losing weight (if overweight) reduces the risk greatly. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products and less in contents such as meats, sweets, or refined grains reduces the risk.
Regular exercise by doing something active for at least 30 minutes a day on most days of the week reduces the risk of developing this condition, among other conditions. Quitting smoking if one smokes, and limiting the amount of alcohol consumed reduces the risk greatly too.
It is important to know that this disease doesn’t usually cause symptoms initially, hence, the symptoms come in a late stage after some marked tissue or organ damage. Thus, routine medical checkups to look out for risks of developing the disease or early detection of the disease reduce late complications.
Dr Ian Shyaka,
Resident in Plastic Surgery, Rwanda Military Hospital