What is aortic atherosclerosis?

What are the symptoms of atherosclerosis of the aorta?

Atherosclerosis doesn't cause symptoms on its own. You may not have any symptoms unless the plaque buildup causes other problems such as a stroke, an aortic aneurysm, an aortic dissection, or blocked blood flow in the leg.

How is atherosclerosis of the aorta treated?

Atherosclerosis of the aorta can be treated with a heart-healthy lifestyle and medicines that help lower your risk of serious problems. These medicines include:

  • High blood pressure medicines such as ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors, ARBs (angiotensin II receptor blockers), and beta-blockers.
  • Cholesterol medicines, such as statins and other medicines to lower cholesterol.
  • Medicine that prevents blood clots, such as aspirin. These medicines prevent blood clots that can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Magnetic resonance angiogram (MRA) of blood vessels


Courtesy of Intermountain Medical Imaging, Boise, Idaho.

Figure 1 and Figure 2 show MRAs of the normal smooth appearance of the large blood vessel (aorta) that carries blood from the heart.

Figure 3 shows an MRA of a narrowed and abnormal aorta from the buildup of calcium and fat (cholesterol) in the inner lining of the artery, often called "hardening of the arteries" (atherosclerosis).

How can you care for yourself when you have atherosclerosis of the aorta?

A heart-healthy lifestyle may benefit your blood vessels. Eat heart-healthy foods. Limit alcohol, sugar, and sodium. Be active. Stay at a weight that's healthy for you. Try to get enough sleep. If you smoke, try to quit. Manage other conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Take your medicines as prescribed.

What is atherosclerosis of the aorta?

Having atherosclerosis (say "ath-uh-roh-skluh-ROH-sis") of the aorta means that a material called plaque (fat and calcium) has built up in the inside wall of a large blood vessel called the aorta. This plaque buildup is sometimes called "hardening of the arteries."

The aorta is the main artery that sends oxygen-rich blood from the heart out to the body and to the brain. It runs from your heart down through your stomach area.

When plaque builds up, it can cause problems:

  • The plaque can weaken the wall of the aorta. The wall might stretch or tear.
  • Pieces of the plaque can break open, which causes a blood clot to form. A blood clot or a piece of plaque can travel to other parts of your body and block blood flow.

So even if you have no symptoms, having this disease makes you more likely to have serious problems such as:

  • Stroke. A stroke can happen when a blood clot travels to the brain and blocks blood flow. Without blood and the oxygen it carries, that part of the brain starts to die.
  • Aortic aneurysm (say "a-OR-tik AN-yuh-rih-zum"). This is a bulge in the wall of the aorta. The bulge can burst, causing serious bleeding.
  • Aortic dissection. This is a tear between the inner and outer layers of the aorta wall. The tear can cause the wall to separate and burst. This can cause serious bleeding.
  • Limb ischemia (say "iss-KEE-mee-yuh"). This means that your limb, usually a leg, is not getting enough oxygen. It happens when a blood clot moves from the aorta to an artery in a leg. The blood clot cuts off blood supply to the leg. It can permanently damage the tissue.

Atherosclerosis of the aorta: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You have severe pain in your belly, back, or chest.
  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You have sudden symptoms in your leg or foot such as severe pain, numbness, weakness, tingling, cool skin, or skin color changes. Your skin may be pale, bluish, or purplish.
  • You cough up blood.
  • You have symptoms of a heart attack. These may include:
    • Chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest.
    • Sweating.
    • Shortness of breath.
    • Nausea or vomiting.
    • Pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly or in one or both shoulders or arms.
    • Lightheadedness or sudden weakness.
    • A fast or irregular heartbeat.
  • You have symptoms of a stroke. These may include:
    • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
    • Sudden vision changes.
    • Sudden trouble speaking.
    • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
    • Sudden problems with walking or balance.
    • A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.