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Plaque – Not Just For Teeth – The Problems And Dangers Explained

Most people are only too aware of the problems that plaque can cause in the mouth but did you know that another type of plaque exists that can, if left untreated, have far-reaching, and damaging consequences?

Known as arterial plaque it affects the vascular system, in particular, the arteries. But unlike the sticky, bacteria-laden biofilm we know as mouth plaque, arterial plaque is a concoction of fatty substances like cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium and fibrin which build up on the arterial walls.

When arterial plaque builds up to such a degree that it starts to clog the area, the artery hardens in a condition known as atherosclerosis. If this goes untreated, narrow arteries can cause problems like high blood pressure and limb discomfort, but can also lead to serious conditions like strokes, heart attacks, vascular dementia and even limb loss. This is why arterial plaque needs to be dealt with.

To put the problem into perspective, research suggests that atherosclerosis is a major human killer responsible for up to 50% of all deaths in the Westernized world. In addition, impaired blood circulation caused by arterial plaque is the number one cause of amputations in the US. So, it is a serious problem and should be treated as such.

So what’s the main cause of arterial plaque build-up

In a word, cholesterol!

If there’s too much cholesterol in the body it can lodge in the walls of the arteries causing them to clog. Additionally, smoking is also a well-known trigger for the build-up of arterial plaque. It’s thought that the chemicals found in tobacco smoke make the walls of the artery sticky. This in turn causes any passing fatty material to cling to the walls thus triggering further build-up.  

So, does this mean if you have arterial plaque, it’s a surefire death sentence?

In a word no!

While eradicating arterial plaque is not always possible, patients may be able to shrink or stabilize any blockage with the correct lifestyle changes, dietary intake and medications.

Changes like gentle exercise, in particular, walking, and switching to a reduced or low-fat diet are known to help, as does quitting smoking. Medications like statins can also be prescribed to help lower cholesterol.

However, the key is to treat the issue early before the problem develops into something more serious. Moreover, any regression from arterial plaque is maximized when changes in lifestyle, dietary requirements and medications are amalgamated. In other words, one change may not be enough without the other. 

How is arterial plaque diagnosed?

Plaque-filled arteries can be diagnosed using several methods depending upon your condition.

An ankle-brachial index (ABI) test, for example, determines whether there is a build-up of plaque in the lower limbs. Essentially, the difference in pressure between an artery in the ankle and an artery in the arm is calculated. The comparison can then be used to determine whether a patient has peripheral artery disease (PAD), the main cause of which is arterial plaque. 

Cholesterol screenings and blood sugar tests can also be used to determine the possibility of plaque build-up. Blood tests can also measure lipoprotein levels which, in turn, can determine whether there is a risk of developing atherosclerotic plaque.

For those with suspected heart problems, they may need to undergo a coronary angiogram. The process uses the latest X-ray imaging software to peer into the heart’s blood vessels and can detect blockages in the arteries often caused by arterial plaque, which can, in turn, lead to a heart attack.

Essentially, the type of test you have is predetermined by your symptoms. These include, but are not limited to:

So what about treatments?`

We’ve already talked about how lifestyle changes, dietary requirements and medications can help manage and control the build-up of plaque, but are there any treatments that can help?

In particular cases, vascular specialists can also perform a non-surgical, outpatient procedure known as stent angioplasty. The procedure involves inserting a tiny catheter into the blocked vein. The catheter has a small balloon attached which is gently inflated, thus it opens up or widens the vein. The process of opening or widening allows blood to flow freely through the vein rather than becoming clogged due to the build-up of arterial plaque.

In other cases, surgeons can reroute the flow of blood away from a blocked vein, particularly when associated with heart problems. This is known as bypass surgery and ensures that blood continues to flow freely by ‘bypassing’ the affected artery.  

Arterial plaque – The outlook

Preventing arterial plaque from clogging the arteries is by no means a simple process and typically involves the patient making significant lifestyle and dietary changes while remaining on medication (statins) for life. If actions like dietary changes, stopping smoking and moderate exercise are not adhered to, then the condition could severely worsen.

That said, the overall outlook isn’t completely bleak. Many people who make these changes go on to live a much improved and lengthy quality of life as they learn to live with the condition rather than fight against it.

If you are experiencing numbness or weakness in the legs or limb discomfort in any form, come and talk to the team at the Midwest Institute of Non-Surgical Therapy (MINT).

Dr Akinwande is a vascular and endovascular specialist who treats problems like lower limb discomfort and Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) using the latest non-surgical treatments.

With offices based in Illinois, Missouri and Chicago, MINT is conveniently placed to serve your needs.

Don’t suffer from arterial plaque build-up! Get in touch and let us help you do something about it today.


Photo attribute: image by Freepik





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