In the past few years, many little-known health-related terms have come into common usage. Today, the word to know is atherothrombosis (ATH-er-o-throm-BO-sis). It's a word that is linked to several severe diseases and one that should be on the minds of anyone over the age of 40.
To understand atherothrombosis, you first need to understand blood and the blood clotting process. Blood runs through our veins and arteries, supplying every cell in our bodies with oxygen and nutrients. It also carries waste materials and cells that help protect our bodies from disease-causing microbes like viruses and bacteria.
When blood is lost through a cut or an injury, there is a natural process that begins to allow the blood to thicken over the area. The thickened mass is called a blood clot or simply a clot. The process of clot formation is called thrombosis. Humans need this process to survive; otherwise, we would bleed uncontrollably every time we cut ourselves.
The basics of atherothrombosis
Sometimes, for a number of reasons, blood clots may also form inside the body. For example, some people have an inherited disorder that causes their blood to "stick together" more readily than in most people, leading to blood clots. Other people have hearts that are not formed properly, allowing blood to pool of blood in the heart, raising the risk of blood clots. More commonly, people have a build-up of cholesterol deposits on the sides of blood vessels, narrowing them and slowing down the flow of blood through the blood vessels.
In the case of atherothrombosis, a blood clot forms on the walls of a blood vessel where these fatty deposits already exist. The word itself comes from atheroma, meaning a fatty deposit in the blood vessel, and thrombosis, which refers to the formation of a clot. One way to think of the damage that a blood clot can inflict is by visualizing a tunnel on the highway. An accident in the tunnel is much like the blood clot. An accident may either partially or completely block the tunnel, stopping the traffic from flowing through. In the case of atherothrombosis, the clot is the accident, blocking the flow of blood through the vein or artery.
A blood clot may:
- completely block an artery or vein
- partially block an artery or vein
- break off from its place on a blood vessel wall and travel to another part of the body
If atherothrombosis causes a disruption of the blood flow in the affected artery, oxygen-rich blood is unable to reach the tissues on the other side of the clot, and the oxygen-starved cells begin to die. If the cells are heart muscle cells, the result is a heart attack; if it's brain tissue, the result is a stroke.
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