Skip to content

Doctors Say These are the Best Ways to Know if Your Arteries are Clogged

Learn what to know about clogged arteries and how to tell if you have the common condition.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Atherosclerosis is a common condition that happens when too much plaque builds up in your arteries. Blocked arteries reduce blood flow to various organs and can lead to serious health conditions. Eric Stahl, MD Non-Invasive Cardiologist at Staten Island University Hospital tells us, "If left untreated, atherosclerosis can progress and lead to heart attack, heart failure, stroke or peripheral artery disease (PAD)." John Whyte, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer, WebMD adds, "Clogged arteries can result in not getting enough blood to vital organs and your brain — and that can cause a heart attack or stroke."   

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute "About half of Americans between ages 45 and 84 have atherosclerosis and don't know it." Clogged arteries can affect several parts of your body and the NHIBL says, "Atherosclerosis can affect most of the arteries in the body, including arteries in the heart, brain, arms, legs, pelvis, and kidneys. It has different names based on which arteries are affected."

Plaque buildup can start as early as childhood and the NHIBL recommends getting screened as young as aged 20. John Hopkins Medicine explains, "It's not clear exactly how atherosclerosis starts or what causes it. However, a gradual buildup of plaque or thickening due to inflammation occurs on the inside of the walls of the artery. This reduces blood flow and oxygen supply to the vital body organs and extremities." That said, there's several risk factors and Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with doctors who share what they are and how to tell if you have atherosclerosis. As always, please consult with your physician for medical advice. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Why Clogged Arteries are so Common

doctor patient consult insomnia

Dr. Stahl says "Atherosclerosis is the process by which fatty deposits or plaque buildup in the walls of arteries. As plaque builds up, the arteries harden and narrow, limiting their ability to deliver blood to different organs. Atherosclerosis is a lifelong process that starts in the second and third decade of life and is most impacted by high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes. Because these risk factors are highly prevalent, atherosclerotic heart disease is the leading cause of death in the USA."   

Dr. Whyte adds, "Clogged arteries occur mostly as a result of fatty, sugar, and processed foods which cause plaque.  It can occur more frequently as we get older because our blood vessels are less flexible. Physical inactivity also contributes to it.  It's mostly due to the lifestyle that many people practice that is a processed diet, sedentary behaviors, stress, and lack of sleep."


Risk Factors

Man eating pizza having a takeaway at home relaxing resting

According to Dr. Stahl, "The most significant modifiable lifestyle risk factors for developing atherosclerosis include smoking, lack of exercise and poor diet. In addition, anyone who develops high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity is at risk for developing atherosclerosis. Finally, those who are related to someone who has atherosclerosis are at increased risk as well."

Dr. Whyte says, "As we get older, we are at greater risk  >45 for men, >55 for women. People with diabetes and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis are also at increased risk. People with high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure are also at increased risk as well as people who are overweight.  Tobacco use also increases the risk."


Clogged Arteries Can Happen Later in Life for Women

overweight woman at home lying on the floor, laptop in front of her, prepared to work out on mat according to video

Dr. Stahl explains, "Studies have shown that women with CAD are often older than men with CAD. Traditional risk factors affect both genders. However, women are also at increased risk of CAD due to pregnancy complications, menopause, and oral contraceptives, which increase the risk later in life. A delay in diagnosis can also occur because women with CAD are more likely to have either no symptoms or atypical symptoms, such as dull pain, indigestion, fatigue, or nausea."

Dr. Whyte says, "It's likely because hormonal levels in women before menopause protect arteries from getting clogged. Remember, since most are caused by lifestyle, people have the power to reduce their personal risk."

MedlinePlus says, "In the United States, heart disease is the number one cause of death in women. But women are often not diagnosed with heart disease as quickly as men are. That's because:

–Women are more likely than men to have "silent" heart disease, meaning that they don't have symptoms.

–Health care providers may not recognize heart disease in women because women's symptoms may be different from men's symptoms.

–Women are more likely than men to have certain types of heart disease that can be harder to diagnose.

A delay in diagnosis may mean a delay in medical care that could help prevent serious problems, such as a heart attack. That's why it's important to learn about your risk for heart disease, the symptoms in women, and how to keep your heart healthy."


Signs of Clogged Arteries


Dr. Stahl says, "As arteries become clogged, blood flow is limited to certain organs. Coronary artery disease (CAD) occurs when the arteries of the heart become blocked. Patients with CAD may experience chest pain, chest discomfort or shortness of breath. Sometimes, a heart attack is the first presentation of CAD. PAD occurs when arteries, often in the lower extremities, become blocked. Patients with PAD typically experience fatigue, pain, cramping, or discomfort in their legs, particularly when walking or exercising."

John Hopkins Medicine states, "Signs and symptoms of atherosclerosis may develop gradually, and may be few, as the plaque gradually builds up in the artery. Symptoms may also vary depending on the affected artery. However, when a major artery is blocked, signs and symptoms may be severe, such as those occurring with heart attack, stroke, or blood clot. The symptoms of atherosclerosis may look like other heart conditions. See your healthcare provider for a diagnosis."


How to Tell if You Have Clogged Arteries

doctor patient closeup fatty liver disease

According to Dr. Whyte, "Other than with special tests like ultrasound, CT scan or an angiogram, it can be hard to tell if arteries are clogged.  We often try to correlate your cholesterol and LDL level with the amount of plaque you might have, but it's an estimate.  Once they start to get clogged, you might start to experience chest pain/discomfort, shortness of breath, or numbness or tingling."

The NHLBI states, "To diagnose atherosclerosis, your doctor will check the results of blood tests, imaging procedures, and other tests and also ask about your medical and family history. A physical exam helps detect symptoms.

Blood Test

Blood tests check the levels of cholesterol, triglyceride, blood sugar, lipoproteins, or proteins that are signs of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein.


An electrocardiogram, also called an ECG or EKG, is a simple, painless test that detects and records your heart's electrical activity. An EKG can show how fast your heart is beating, whether the rhythm of your heartbeats is steady or irregular, and the strength and timing of the electrical impulses passing through each part of your heart. You may have an EKG as part of a routine exam to screen for heart disease.

Heart Imaging Tests

Your doctor may order a heart imaging test to take pictures of your heart and find problems in blood flow in the heart or coronary arteries.

Coronary Calcium Scan

A coronary calcium scan is a CT scan of your heart that measures the amount of calcium in the walls of your coronary arteries. Buildup of calcium, or calcifications, are a sign of atherosclerosis or coronary heart disease. A coronary calcium scan may be done in a medical imaging facility or hospital. The test does not use contrast dye and will take about 10 to 15 minutes to complete.

Stress Tests

A stress test measures how healthy your heart is and how well it works during physical stress. Some heart problems are easier to identify when your heart is working hard to pump blood throughout your body, such as when you exercise. You may do a stress test in your doctor's office or a hospital. The test usually involves physical exercise such as walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bicycle.

Ankle-Brachial Index (ABI) Test

Ankle-brachial index (ABI) tests are used to diagnose peripheral artery disease. This painless test compares the blood pressures in your ankle and your arm using a blood pressure cuff and ultrasounds device."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
Filed Under