Diagnosing atherosclerosis 

As atherosclerosis does not cause symptoms until cardiovascular disease occurs, those at risk of developing the condition should be tested.

Screening allows treatment to be given to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease developing.

Your GP may recommend you are screened if you:

  • are over 40 years of age – everyone between the ages of 40 and 74 will be automatically invited to have an NHS Health Check
  • are overweight or obese
  • are a smoker or have a history of heavy smoking
  • eat a high-fat diet
  • have high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • have type 1 or type 2 diabetes
  • have a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes

There are several tests that assess your level of existing atherosclerosis and your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, including:

  • blood tests – to measure the amount of cholesterol in your blood and the amount of glucose, if you are diabetic
  • blood pressure tests
  • a measurement of your weight and waist size

Your GP may also carry out an ankle-brachial index test. This compares the blood pressure in your ankle to the blood pressure in your arm.

A difference between the two readings may suggest that atherosclerosis is restricting the blood supply to your legs and that you have peripheral arterial disease.

Further tests

If your risk of developing cardiovascular disease is high or you are experiencing symptoms of cardiovascular disease, further tests may be needed to confirm the level of atherosclerosis and locate any potential blockages in your arteries. These tests are explained below.

Electrocardiogram

An electrocardiogram (ECG) measures the electrical activity of your heart. This test can measure how well your heart is functioning and can often detect the presence of heart disease.

Ultrasound

An ultrasound scanner uses sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of your body. This can be used to measure your blood pressure at different points in your body. Any variation in pressure could point to the site of a blockage in your arteries. Ultrasound tests can also be used to study the larger arteries.

Read more about ultrasound scans.

Angiography

During an angiography you are injected with a special dye that can be seen on X-ray. The test is used to see how the blood flows through your body.

Read more about angiographies.

Computerised tomography scan

A computerised tomography (CT) scan takes a series of X-ray images and uses a computer to assemble them into a more detailed three-dimensional image. It can often detect narrowing or hardening in the larger arteries.

Read more about CT scans.

Ophthalmoscopy

An ophthalmoscopy is a type of eye test where an instrument called an ophthalmoscope is used to examine the blood vessels in the back of your eye. The ophthalmoscope can sometimes detect hardening of the blood vessels in your retina (the retina is the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye). 

Page last reviewed: 13/06/2014

Next review due: 13/06/2016