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Symptoms

Atherosclerosis usually doesn't cause any symptoms until blood supply to an organ is reduced. When this happens, symptoms vary, depending on the specific organ involved:

  • Heart Symptoms include the chest pain of angina and shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, dizziness or light-headedness, breathlessness or palpitations.

  • Brain When atherosclerosis narrows brain arteries, it can cause dizziness or confusion; weakness or paralysis on one side of the body; sudden, severe numbness in any part of the body; visual disturbance, including sudden loss of vision; difficulty walking, including staggering or veering; coordination problems in the arms and hands; and slurred speech or inability to speak. If symptoms disappear in less than 24 hours, the episode is called a transient ischemic attack (TIA). When atherosclerosis completely blocks the brain arteries and/or the above symptoms last longer, it's generally called a stroke.

  • Abdomen When atherosclerosis narrows the arteries to the intestines, there may be dull or cramping pain in the middle of the abdomen, usually beginning 15 to 30 minutes after a meal. Complete blockage of an intestinal artery causes severe abdominal pain, sometimes with vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal swelling.

  • Legs Narrowing of the leg arteries causes cramping pain in the leg muscles, especially during exercise. If narrowing is severe, there may be pain at rest, cold toes and feet, pale or bluish skin and hair loss on the legs.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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