Atherosclerosis Treatment: Can You Reverse Plaque Buildup in Your Arteries?

Atherosclerosis is caused by the formation of a plaque inside an artery. You may be able to reverse plaque buildup with medications called statins, but you will need to get your bad cholesterol to go way down.


It's much easier to prevent atherosclerosis than to treat or try and reverse it. Prevention begins with lifestyle changes.

© Rasi Bhadramani | Getty Images

Atherosclerosis is a clogged artery due to plaque formation. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from your heart to your body. A plaque starts as an injury to the inside of an artery. At the injury site, cholesterol, fat, and other substances start to collect and form a lump called a plaque. A plaque narrows the flow of blood through the artery. If a plaque ruptures, a blood clot can close the artery completely and cause a heart attack or stroke.

What Are the Warning Signs of a Clogged Artery?

You may have a clogged artery from atherosclerosis without any warning signs until the plaque becomes large enough to slow down blood supply. In that case, the warning signs would depend on where the plaque is. Some examples include:

  • A plaque in a coronary artery that supplies your heart may cause chest pain called angina. Angina may be an early warning for a heart attack.
  • A plaque in an artery that supplies your brain may cause sudden but temporary symptoms like numbness, weakness, trouble speaking, changes in vision, or drooping face muscles. This is called a transient ischemic attack (TIA). TIA may be an early warning of a stroke.
  • A plaque in an artery the supplies the muscles of your leg may cause pain when you walk, called claudication.
  • A plaque in the artery that supplies your kidney may cause high blood pressure.

Atherosclerosis Treatment

You may be diagnosed with atherosclerosis if you have an imaging test of an artery that shows plaque. Warning symptoms of atherosclerosis, your physical exam, blood testing, electrocardiogram, and other tests may also lead to a diagnosis of atherosclerosis. Treatment may start with lifestyle changes. These include:

  • Not smoking
  • Eating a heart healthy diet
  • Getting exercise for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Working with your doctor to control your blood pressure and blood sugar if needed

If your doctor thinks that lifestyle changes are not enough, you may be started on a medication to lower your bad cholesterol called a statin drug. Statins are used for people with signs of atherosclerosis or people at higher risk for atherosclerosis due to diabetes or high levels of bad cholesterol, called LDL cholesterol.

Along with a statin drug, other drugs may be used to lower the risk of atherosclerosis such as medications to lower blood pressure or blood sugar or medication to thin the blood and prevent blood clots. In some cases, lifestyle changes and medications are not enough to control atherosclerosis. In these cases, surgeries can be done to open clogged arteries. These surgeries include:

  • Percutaneous coronary intervention, which may include threading a catheter into the clogged artery, opening the artery with a tiny balloon, and placing a stent in the artery to keep it open
  • Doing open surgery to bypass a clogged artery with a graft, called bypass surgery
  • Removing a blood clot from an artery, called an atherectomy.

Can Atherosclerosis Be Reversed or Prevented?

It is much easier to prevent atherosclerosis than to reverse it. The best way to prevent atherosclerosis is to start the same lifestyle changes used to treat it. If you have atherosclerosis, the main goal of treatment is to keep it from getting worse and prevent complications like a heart attack or stroke.

Research shows that treating LDL cholesterol very aggressively with a statin drug may reduce plaque buildup. The normal level for LDL is between 100 and 130 mg/dl. To reverse plaque buildup, you may need to drop your LDL below 70 mg/dL. Studies show that a very low level of LDL may stop a plaque from growing and shrink a plaque by about one-fourth. The best statins for getting to a very low LDL are atorvastatin (Lipitor) and rosuvastatin (Crestor).

Early research suggests a future way to reverse plaque buildup is a procedure called focused ultrasound therapy. During this procedure, ultrasound sound waves are used to target a plaque and break it up. This procedure shows promise but is still in the testing stage of research and not yet available for patients.

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Chris Iliades, MD

Dr. Chris Iliades is board-certified in Ear, Nose and Throat and Head and Neck Surgery from the American Board of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery. He holds a medical … Read More

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