Atherosclerosis is the condition in which an artery wall thickens as the result of a build-up of fatty materials such as cholesterol. It is a syndrome affecting arterial blood vessels, a chronic inflammatory response in the walls of arteries, in large part due to the accumulation of macrophage white blood cells and promoted by low density (especially small particle) lipoproteins (plasma proteins that carry cholesterol and triglycerides) without adequate removal of fats and cholesterol from the macrophages by functional high density lipoproteins (HDL), (see apoA-1 Milano). It is commonly referred to as a hardening or furring of the arteries. It is caused by the formation of multiple plaques within the arteries.
The atheromatous plaque is divided into three distinct components:
The following terms are similar, yet distinct, in both spelling and meaning, and can be easily confused: arteriosclerosis, arteriolosclerosis, and atherosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis is a general term describing any hardening (and loss of elasticity) of medium or large arteries (from the Greek Arterio, meaning artery, and sclerosis, meaning hardening); arteriolosclerosis is any hardening (and loss of elasticity) of arterioles (small arteries); atherosclerosis is a hardening of an artery specifically due to an atheromatous plaque. Therefore, atherosclerosis is a form of arteriosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis, though typically asymptomatic for decades, eventually produces two main problems: First, the atheromatous plaques, though long compensated for by artery enlargement (see IMT), eventually lead to plaque ruptures and clots inside the artery lumen over the ruptures. The clots heal and usually shrink but leave behind stenosis (narrowing) of the artery (both locally and in smaller downstream branches), or worse, complete closure, and, therefore, an insufficient blood supply to the tissues and organ it feeds. Second, if the compensating artery enlargement process is excessive, then a net aneurysm results.
These complications of advanced atherosclerosis are chronic, slowly progressive and cumulative. Most commonly, soft plaque suddenly ruptures (see vulnerable plaque), causing the formation of a thrombus that will rapidly slow or stop blood flow, leading to death of the tissues fed by the artery in approximately 5 minutes. This catastrophic event is called an infarction. One of the most common recognized scenarios is called coronary thrombosis of a coronary artery, causing myocardial infarction (a heart attack). Even worse is the same process in an artery to the brain, commonly called stroke. Another common scenario in very advanced disease is claudication from insufficient blood supply to the legs, typically due to a combination of both stenosis and aneurysmal segments narrowed with clots. Since atherosclerosis is a body-wide process, similar events occur also in the arteries to the brain, intestines, kidneys, legs, etc.
Yet, many infarctions involve only very small amounts of tissue and are termed clinically silent, because the person having the infarction does not notice the problem, does not seek medical help or when they do, physicians do not recognize what has happened.