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What Causes Clogged Arteries & How They’re Treated

Here’s how to tell if you’re at risk for clogged arteries and what you and your doctor can do to treat them.
An illustration of a medium green circle showing the cross section of a dark yellow artery. The inside of the horizontal artery has medium yellow obstructions over a light yellow background.
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Written by Anubodh Sunny Varshney, MD.
Fellow in Cardiovascular Medicine, Brigham Women's Hospital
Medically reviewed by
Last updated May 13, 2024

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What are clogged arteries?

Clogged arteries, also called atherosclerosis, is when there’s a build-up of plaque inside the arteries.

Your arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood and nutrients from the heart to various parts of the body. The plaque that forms there—arterial plaque—is made up of cholesterol, fat, inflammatory cells, calcium, and other materials.

If an arterial plaque becomes large enough, it can decrease the amount of blood that normally flows through the artery. Then areas of the body that the artery normally supplies don’t get enough oxygen and nutrients.

The parts of the body most commonly affected include the heart, brain, and legs. A clogged artery in the heart is sometimes referred to as a “heart blockage.”

Clogged arteries are treated with lifestyle changes, medication, and procedures. Your treatment will depend on what part of your body is affected, the severity of the plaque build-up, and the risk factors that caused the plaque build-up.

Sometimes, arterial plaques burst and form a blood clot. This can cause serious conditions such as a heart attack or stroke.

If you think you may be having a heart attack or stroke, go to the ER immediately.

Most common symptoms

Pro Tip

The warning signs of clogged arteries of the heart are chest tightness, chest pain, or trouble breathing, especially with physical exertion. If the leg arteries are clogged, you may feel cramping in your calves, thighs, or butt when walking or climbing stairs. If the arteries of the neck or head are clogged, you may have vision issues, feel like the room is spinning, or have difficulty with walking or balance. —Dr. Sunny Varshney

Most people have no symptoms during the early stages of plaque build-up. But as the build-up grows larger, you may start to notice symptoms. The symptoms you experience depend on where the clogged arteries are located.

Heart symptoms

  • Squeezing chest pain or tightness with physical exertion or emotional stress that lasts anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes.
  • Difficulty breathing when you exert yourself.

Brain symptoms

  • Lightheadedness
  • Vertigo (the sensation that the room is spinning)
  • Difficulty speaking or slurred speech
  • Difficulty keeping your balance
  • Blurry vision or vision loss
  • Drooping face muscles
  • Other neurologic problems, like reduced sensation or strength in a specific part of the body (the location varies based on which part of the brain isn’t getting enough blood flow)

Leg symptoms

  • Cramping pain in the calves, thighs, or buttocks in one or both legs when you exert yourself (the pain usually feels better with rest)
  • Ulcers (open sores that don’t heal) and reduced sensation in one or both feet (if leg artery disease is severe)

Other symptoms

  • Similar cramping pain with exertion can occur in the arms if those arteries are clogged.
  • Arteries that supply blood to your intestines can also become clogged, though this is rare. If this happens, you may have crampy abdominal pain after eating. In severe cases, people may start to avoid eating so they don’t experience pain. This can cause weight loss.

Next steps

If you think you may have clogged arteries, get medical attention. The type of medical attention you need depends on the symptoms you’re experiencing.

Go to the ER if you have:

  • Sudden, severe chest pain
  • Neurologic symptoms (like reduced sensation in an area of the body)
  • Severe leg pain, especially if your leg turns pale or blue-ish or is cold

If your symptoms are less severe, make an appointment with your doctor. Ideally, the appointment should take place within a few days. Or go to an urgent care center.

Causes of arterial plaque

Plaque build-up and clogged arteries typically develop over many years. Many factors contribute to it.

The first stage of clogged arteries involves damage to the inner layer of cells in the artery. This can be caused by high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, smoking, diabetes, obesity, and other causes of inflammation.

Once the damage has occurred, inflammatory cells, cholesterol, and other materials begin to collect in the artery. These form a plaque. Over time, the plaque can grow until it severely narrows the artery and reduces blood flow.

Sometimes, the plaque can burst open (rupture) or the top of the plaque can get worn down (erosion), which causes a blood clot.

Risk factors

Risk factors for clogged arteries include:

  • Older age (over 45 years for men and over 55 years for women)
  • Being overweight or obese
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • High blood pressure
  • High levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol
  • Diabetes, especially if it’s poorly controlled
  • Frequent exposure to environmental and air pollution
  • Tobacco use, including e-cigarettes and exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Eating a diet high in saturated fats or trans fats
  • A strong family history of clogged arteries (especially if the problem developed at a young age)

Other, rarer risk factors include having HIV/AIDS, certain inflammatory conditions (like lupus), and past radiation therapy for cancer.

Dr. Rx

At any given time, there are numerous clinical trials evaluating new drugs and devices to improve how people with clogged arteries feel and help them live longer. Remain open to the idea of trying new, improved treatments for plaque buildup in the future. —Dr. Varshney

Treatment

Treatments for clogged arteries include a combination of lifestyle changes, medication, and sometimes procedures. The goal is to slow plaque build-up, prevent significant artery narrowing, and prevent complications like heart attack or stroke.

Lifestyle changes

  • Quitting smoking
  • Eating smaller portions
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet that’s high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins
  • Limiting sweets, processed foods, sodium, and refined sugars
  • Getting at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity (or 75 minutes of intense physical activity) per week
  • Maintaining a healthy weight and body mass index

Medications

  • Anti-hypertensive medications to control high blood pressure if you have it. These include hydrochlorothiazide, carvedilol, amlodipine, lisinopril, and others. Typically, the goal is to maintain blood pressure that is less than 130/80.
  • Medications to control diabetes if you have it. Diabetes medications include metformin, insulin, dapagliflozin (Farxiga), liraglutide (Victoza), and others.
  • Statin medications, which lower bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and make plaques less likely to rupture. They are taken daily over many years. Statins include atorvastatin (Lipitor), rosuvastatin (Crestor), and simvastatin (Zocor).
  • Low-dose aspirin, which can prevent the formation of blood clots. Since aspirin slightly thins the blood, it can cause excess bleeding (like blood in the stool or urine, or excess bleeding after small injuries like cuts or scrapes). If you have a history of certain bleeding problems, your doctor may tell you to not take aspirin.
  • If you already have moderate or severe arterial plaque, you will be prescribed medication based on the location of the clogged arteries. For example, cilostazol is for people with blockages in the arteries of the legs to help lessen leg pain with physical exertion.

Procedures

If you have severe plaque build-up or complications (such as a heart attack), you may need to have procedures or surgery to unclog arteries or bypass clogged arteries. These include:

  • Percutaneous coronary intervention. This involves inserting a stent (a mesh tube) into blocked arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. It is used when you’ve had a heart attack. It may also be recommended if the artery is severely narrowed and causing significant chest pain even when taking medications. It is minimally invasive— a catheter is inserted into the artery through the wrist or groin. If you haven’t had a heart attack, you usually can go home the same day of the procedure.
  • Bypass grafting surgery. This surgery takes a vein or artery from another part of the body to create a bypass, or alternative route, around a severe blockage in an artery. Bypass grafting is usually done in the heart, but it can also treat severe blockages in the legs, abdomen, or neck. Recovery can take several days to a few weeks.
  • Carotid endarterectomy. This surgery involves removing plaque build-up in the carotid artery. This artery is located in the neck and supplies blood to the brain. Recovery typically takes several days to a week.

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Follow up

Plaque build-up and clogged arteries require long-term management with lifestyle changes, medications, and regular follow-up visits with your doctor.

If you had a procedure or surgery for plaque build-up, you will need short-term follow-up visits with your doctor. They will make sure there are no complications from your surgery and that the surgical wounds (cuts) are healing well.

You will continue to be monitored by your doctor. You may need lab tests and imaging studies from time to time to check plaque build-up in the arteries. Depending on how you are feeling, you may eventually be prescribed stronger medications to treat risk factors.

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Preventative tips

The best ways to prevent plaque build-up and clogged arteries are:

  • Quitting smoking.
  • Getting at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity (or 75 minutes of intense physical activity) per week.
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet that’s high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins.
  • Limiting sweets, processed foods, sodium, and refined sugars.
  • Maintaining a normal body weight and body mass index.
  • Taking any medications your doctor has prescribed, such as those for high blood pressure and diabetes.

Pro Tip

Adopting and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including a heart-healthy diet and regular exercise, is more important than all the medications used to treat clogged arteries combined. Study after study has shown that people who maintain a healthy weight, eat a varied diet, avoid smoking, and get regular aerobic exercise have much lower rates of plaque build-up. —Dr. Varshney

Hear what 1 other is saying
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The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
The VA and hospital cant find whats wrong with me.Posted April 19, 2024 by J.
March 20th 2024, woke up after 3 days of work and my whole body meaning all my muscles hurt as if worked out for 100 hours straight. Felt fatigued as well. I wasn’t sick, didn’t have a fever, no chills, could taste and smell everything. Then it disappeared after 2 days. March 26th my whole body went out of wack, couldn’t breathe, chest an neck tightness, tingling sensation all over, hot flashes, sudden fatigue, difficulty breathing, walking, legs felt like noodles, sudden dry mouth, despite being hydrated. I had rice and salmon 3 hours earlier, ate it all the time. Ended up going to ER. They dod cat scan, and mri of head and neck, found nothing. 2 days later had delayed reaction to oatmeal which i eat all the time. March 31st, had an egg ant toast sandwich, body went out of wack again 15 minutes later. I had to work that day. Ironically i had eggs march 24th and was fine. 3 reactions since march 26th. Lost 10 pounds unexpectedly in 4 days. Never have had any food allergies, and i suspect its not that. Since march 26th i have been to ER 4 times, urgent care 3 times, 2 chest X-rays, 2 ct-scans, one mri, 6 blood draws, one for thyroid and one for diabetes, both came back negative. Ive been spitting blood for over 6 months randomly, but every day since march 26th. As of this writing 4-18-2024 ive lost a total of 18 pounds since march 26th, as the days have gone on, i get hot flashes, tingling all over when moving or walking, balance issues, unexplained chest pain, throat tightness. I had a perfect exercise routine since January going 3 days a week, and last workout was march 25th. Lost all muscle in a matter of 25 days. The va and hospitals cant find anything wrong with me. They say my blood is normal, tests are normal, nothing makes sense. All this time ive had a normal temp not sick once. It’s baffling. Eating has been hard because my body goes out of wack on almost everything i eat. Never had issues with any food prior to march 26th. My body us telling me different than what they are telling me. I can barely function most of the time. Prior to march 20th i had no issues mentioned above. Everything came suddenly and has worsened since. Very frustrating im getting the runaround. Im not anxious or stressed, my body is not right somewhere because i feel it all over. One of my scans said i have a slight inflamed colon. They said it was no big deal. I have a endoscopy on may 3rd, a food allergy consult april 25, but i know its not food allergies, it’s something with my body, I suspected pancreas but the dismissed that right away. They still ignore my weight loss and muscle loss as if its no big deal. This is the Va and main hospital we’re talking about. At times it feels like my heart is tearing open, followed by a sharp pain, but they say my vitals are normal. None of this is normal. I don’t know what else to do.
Dr. Le obtained his MD from Harvard Medical School and his BA from Harvard College. Before Buoy, his research focused on glioblastoma, a deadly form of brain cancer. Outside of work, Dr. Le enjoys cooking and struggling to run up-and-down the floor in an adult basketball league.

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