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5 Signs Your Heart is "Choked with Plaque"

Learn what plaque buildup around your heart is and signs you have it.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Heart disease is the leading cause of death and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "One person dies every 34 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease.  About 697,000 people in the United States died from heart disease in 2020—that's 1 in every 5 deaths. However, a large percentage of cases are avoidable by healthy lifestyle choices like not smoking, exercising 150 minutes a week and eating a nutritional diet. The American Heart Association states, "An estimated 80% of cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, are preventable. Having plaque buildup is one of the most common heart disease conditions and knowing the signs is vital for early detection and treatment. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies who shares what to know about plaque around your heart and warning signals to keep an eye on. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What is Plaque


Dr. Mitchell asks, "Have you ever had to deal with a clogged bathroom sink or shower? It's pretty frustrating. The telltale signs of slowly draining water and increasing lime and calcium buildup can be a real nuisance. A clogged sink or shower can lead to water damage, mold growth, and even flooding if left unaddressed.

Just as we need to pay attention to the telltale signs of a blocked drainpipe, so should we be attuned to the signs that our heart health may be in trouble. A heart attack is often preceded by symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, and nausea – but unfortunately, many people ignore these warning signs, thinking they are simply indigestion or a bout of flu. In reality, these warning signs are your body's way of telling you something is wrong with your heart, and you should seek medical help immediately. You could save your life by being aware of the signs of a heart attack and acting accordingly.

Plaque is a sticky substance that builds up on the walls of your arteries. Over time, plaque can harden and narrow your arteries, making blood flow difficult. This can lead to a number of severe health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, and aneurysms. Here are five signs that your heart may be filled with plaque."


Chest Pain or Discomfort

Young woman suffering from breathing problem near window indoors.

Dr. Mitchell tells us, "Chest pain or discomfort signifies that your heart is filling with plaque. When plaque accumulates in your coronary arteries, it causes them to narrow and makes it difficult for oxygen-rich blood to flow to your heart muscle. This can lead to chest pain or discomfort, known as angina. Angina can feel heaviness, pressure, squeezing, or pain in your chest. It may also radiate to your jaw, neck, shoulders, or arms. If you have angina, you must see a doctor immediately. Angina is a symptom of coronary artery disease and can be a warning sign of a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart muscle is blocked entirely. Depending on the severity of your coronary artery disease, treatment may involve lifestyle changes, medication, surgery, or a combination of these approaches. Chest pain or discomfort is a severe symptom and should not be ignored. If you experience chest pain or discomfort, seek medical attention immediately."


Shortness of Breath

Woman holding hand to spot of pain area, chest

"Shortness of breath is a common symptom of heart disease," says Dr. Mitchell. "When the heart is filled with plaque, it cannot pump blood efficiently. This can cause a build-up of fluid in the lungs, making breathing difficult. In some cases, the heart may also be unable to supply enough oxygen to the body, resulting in fatigue and dizziness. If you experience shortness of breath, you must see a doctor as soon as possible. They can determine the cause of your symptoms and prescribe treatment. In many cases, shortness of breath can be managed with lifestyle changes and medication. However, if left untreated, it can lead to more severe complications such as heart failure. Plaque can also reduce the amount of blood that flows to the lungs, causing shortness of breath."


Irregular Heartbeat

Woman pressing her chest.

Dr. Mitchell explains, "An irregular heartbeat, also known as arrhythmia, is a condition in which the heart beats too fast, too slow, or with an irregular pattern. While a healthy heart typically beats between 60 and 100 times per minute, an irregular heartbeat can cause the heart to beat at a rate of fewer than 60 beats per minute (bradycardia) or more than 100 beats per minute (tachycardia). Sometimes, the heart may skip a beat (pauses), resulting in an irregular heartbeat. An irregular heartbeat is often a sign that the heart is filling with plaque. This happens when the arteries that supply blood to the heart become blocked or narrowed. Plaque comprises fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. Over time, plaque can harden and narrow the arteries, making it difficult for blood to flow through them. If left untreated, an irregular heartbeat can lead to serious health complications, including heart attack and stroke. Therefore, it is important to see a doctor if you experience an irregular heartbeat."



woman laying on bed with a phone in her hand.

According to Dr. Mitchell, "Fatigue is a common symptom of heart disease, which can signify that your heart is filling with plaque. Over time, plaque can harden and narrow your arteries, making it difficult for blood to flow through them. This can lead to fatigue, as your heart has to work harder to pump blood through the arteries. Fatigue can also be caused by anemia when there are not enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to the body's tissues. If you experience fatigue, it is essential to see a doctor so that they can determine the cause and provide treatment. Fatigue can sometimes signify a more severe condition, such as heart failure or a heart attack. Therefore, it is essential to seek medical attention if you experience fatigue regularly or if it interferes with your daily activities".


Swelling in the Legs and Feet

Swollen feet

Dr. Mitchell shares, "Swelling in the legs and feet often signifies that your heart is filling with plaque. This happens because the plaque causes the arteries to narrow, which reduces the amount of blood that can flow through them. As a result, the blood backs up in the veins and leads to swelling. If you notice swelling in your legs or feet, you must see a doctor as soon as possible. They can determine if the cause is heart-related and recommend treatment. In some cases, the swelling can be reduced with lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking and exercising more. However, in other cases, more aggressive treatment may be necessary, such as surgery to remove the plaque from the arteries.

Plaque can restrict blood flow to the extremities, causing swelling in the legs and feet. If you experience any of these symptoms, it's essential to see a doctor so they can determine if you have plaque buildup in your arteries. Treatments can help improve blood flow and reduce your risk of heart disease and other complications."

Dr. Mitchell says this "doesn't constitute medical advice and by no means are these answers meant to be comprehensive. Rather, it's to encourage discussions about health choices."

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