Symptoms of atherosclerosis 

Atherosclerosis does not usually produce symptoms until your blood circulation becomes restricted or blocked, leading to cardiovascular disease (CVD).

The type of cardiovascular disease and its associated symptoms depends on where the blockage occurs.

Conditions caused by atherosclerosis include:

  • peripheral arterial disease
  • angina
  • aneurysm
  • heart attack
  • stroke

The conditions and their symptoms are described below.

Peripheral arterial disease

Peripheral arterial disease, also known as peripheral vascular disease, is a condition that occurs when there is a blockage in the arteries of your limbs (in most cases, your legs).

The most common symptom of peripheral arterial disease is pain in your legs. This is usually in one or both of your thighs, hips, or calves.

The pain can feel like a cramp, or a sensation of dullness or heaviness in the muscles of your legs. The pain usually comes and goes and is worse when doing exercise that uses your legs, such as walking or climbing stairs.

Other symptoms of peripheral arterial disease include:

  • weakness or numbness in your legs
  • having sores on your feet or legs that never heal
  • a change in the colour of the skin on your legs
  • hair loss on your legs or feet
  • thickening of your toenails
  • erectile dysfunction, also known as impotence

Angina

Angina is caused by a reduced blood supply to the heart.

The most common symptom of angina is a feeling of pain or discomfort in your chest. The pain can feel tight, dull or heavy, and usually passes within a few minutes.

The pain can spread from your chest to your left arm, neck, jaw and back. It usually follows a period of physical activity or emotional stress. In some cases, the pain can develop during cold weather or after eating a meal.

Some people with angina may also experience:

  • breathlessness
  • feeling sick
  • fatigue (feeling tired all the time)
  • dizziness 
  • belching (burping)
  • restlessness

Angina symptoms are sometimes referred to as an angina attack.

Aneurysm

If atherosclerosis weakens the walls of your blood vessels, it can lead to the formation of an aneurysm (a bulge in a blood vessel).

If the aneurysm grows too large, there is a danger it will rupture, which can cause potentially fatal internal bleeding and organ damage.

An aneurysm can develop anywhere in the body, but the two most common types of aneurysm are:

  • brain aneurysm (also known as a cerebral aneurysm), which develops inside the brain
  • an aortic aneurysm, which develops inside the aorta (a large blood vessel that runs down the abdomen and transports blood away from your heart)

If an aortic aneurysm ruptures, you will experience a sudden and severe pain in the middle or side of your abdomen. In men, the pain can spread down into the scrotum (the sac containing the testicles).

Symptoms of a ruptured brain aneurysm usually begin with a sudden and severe headache, which has been described as like being hit on the head.

You should dial 999 immediately to request an ambulance if you suspect a ruptured aneurysm.

Heart attack

If one of the plaques in your coronary arteries ruptures, it could create a blood clot. If the blood clot blocks the supply of blood to your heart, it will cause you to have a heart attack.

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • chest pain – usually located in the centre of your chest and giving the sensation of pressure, tightness or squeezing
  • pain in other parts of the body that can feel as though it is travelling from your chest to your arms (usually the left arm, although both arms can be affected), jaw, neck, back and abdomen 
  • an overwhelming sense of anxiety (similar to a panic attack)
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling sick
  • lightheadedness
  • coughing
  • vomiting
  • wheezing

You should dial 999 immediately if you suspect a heart attack.

Stroke

Blood clots can also block the supply of blood to your brain, causing a stroke.

The main symptoms of a stroke can be remembered by using the acronym FAST, which stands for:

  • Face – the face may have fallen on one side, the person may be unable to smile, or their mouth or eye may have drooped
  • Arms – because of a weakness or numbness of the arms, the person with a suspected stroke may not be able to raise both their arms and keep them raised
  • Speech – the person's speech may be slurred
  • Time – it is time to dial 999 immediately if you see any of these signs or symptoms

Symptoms in the FAST test are successful in identifying about 90% of all strokes.

You should dial 999 immediately to request an ambulance if you suspect a stroke.

Other signs and symptoms may include:

  • dizziness
  • communication problems (difficulty talking and understanding what others are saying)
  • problems with balance and co-ordination
  • difficulty swallowing
  • severe headaches
  • numbness or weakness resulting in complete paralysis in one side of the body
  • loss of consciousness (in severe cases)

transient ischaemic attack (TIA) is where the blood supply to the brain is temporarily interrupted, causing a "mini-stroke".

The symptoms of a TIA are the same as those of a stroke, but they only last for between a few minutes and a few hours before disappearing completely.

However, a TIA should never be ignored as it is a serious warning sign that there is a problem with the blood supply to your brain.

Peripheral arterial disease

Peripheral arterial disease occurs when there is a blockage in the arteries in the limbs. An expert describes the causes of the condition, such as smoking and high blood pressure, and the risks associated with the condition. He also gives advice on treatment options and managing the disease.

Media last reviewed: 13/06/2014

Next review due: 13/06/2016

Page last reviewed: 13/06/2014

Next review due: 13/06/2016