One of the most serious health problems related to untreated high blood pressure is atherosclerosis, or plaque build-up in the arteries. When those blockages occur in the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle, the end result is called coronary artery disease.
People with high blood pressure are more likely to develop coronary artery disease, because high blood pressure puts added force against the artery walls. Over time, this extra pressure can damage the arteries, making them more vulnerable to the narrowing and plaque buildup associated with atherosclerosis. The narrowed artery limits or blocks the flow of blood to the heart muscle, depriving the heart of oxygen.
When the process is advanced enough, patients can experience angina, or chest pain, when they exert themselves. The hardened surface of the artery can also encourage the formation of small blood clots, potentially leading to a heart attack or stroke.
Atherosclerosis usually has no symptoms until the narrowed coronary arteries severely restrict blood flow to the heart. At this point, you may feel chest pain because not enough blood is reaching your heart, especially while you are exerting yourself or are under stress.
A heart attack is permanent damage to the heart muscle caused by a sudden loss of blood flow to the heart muscle. A heart attack occurs when a clot blocks an already narrowed coronary artery so that blood flow is severely reduced or completely interrupted. Left without oxygen, the portion of the heart muscle served by the blocked artery is injured.
Atherosclerosis isn’t usually diagnosed until a person complains of chest pain. At this point, the doctor may conduct tests to evaluate your risk for heart disease. These tests include:
In general, the treatment for atherosclerosis includes making changes to diet, increasing exercise, and often using medications to reduce blood cholesterol levels. Other treatments may include angioplasty and stenting for severe blockages. In some cases, open heart (bypass) surgery may even be required.
Your doctor may prescribe drugs to reduce high blood pressure and the risk of atherosclerosis. High blood pressure drugs include diuretics, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers, and/or alpha blockers.