Coronary artery disease (CAD) is a condition that reduces the flow of blood to your heart. This condition puts you at risk for heart attack and other forms of heart disease.
CAD develops when the major arteries that supply the heart with blood, oxygen, and nutrients (coronary arteries) become damaged or diseased.
Arteries are smooth and elastic but they become stiff and narrow when plaque builds up on their inner walls. The plaque is formed by an accumulation of fat and other substances.
Eventually, the reduced blood flow can cause different coronary artery disease symptoms, including chest pain (angina), shortness of breath, and others. A complete blockage can lead to a heart attack.
Coronary artery disease symptoms develop over time, even decades. As such, the problem may not be obvious until you experience a significant blockage or a heart attack.
Coronary artery disease symptoms to watch out for
Many people with coronary artery disease have no symptoms. For those who do, the symptoms mostly happen during times of stress or exercise. Symptoms associated with coronary artery disease include:
- Angina – One of the most common coronary artery disease symptoms is a type of chest pain called angina. This feels like tightness, heaviness, or pressure in the chest, as if someone were standing on it. It can also feel like fullness or squeezing. It may involve an aching, burning, or numb sensation. The pain usually occurs on the middle or left side of the chest.
Angina may radiate to the back, jaw, neck, shoulders, or arms. The feeling of discomfort may also extend from the shoulder down to your fingers or into the upper abdomen. Typically, one doesn’t feel angina pain above the ears or below the belly button.
Sometimes angina causes only a vague feeling of pressure, heaviness, or discomfort. It can also seem as if you’re having indigestion or shortness of breath. Women and older adults are more likely than men and younger people to have this kind of angina.
Angina is generally triggered by physical or emotional stress. It is caused by ischemia, which happens when the heart isn’t getting enough blood with oxygen. This can make heart muscles cramp and function abnormally.
Other coronary artery disease symptoms are:
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat or clammy skin
- Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
Causes and complications of coronary artery disease
Coronary artery disease is thought to begin with damage or injury to the inner layer of a coronary artery, which may occur as early as childhood. The damage may be caused by various factors, including:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Diabetes or insulin resistance
- Sedentary lifestyle
Once the inner wall of an artery is damaged, fatty deposits or plaque from cholesterol and other cellular waste products tend to collect at the area of injury and results in atherosclerosis.
If the surface of the plaque breaks or ruptures, blood cells called platelets will clump at the site to try to repair the artery. This clump can completely block the artery, leading to a heart attack.
The following complications may arise from coronary artery disease:
- Heart attack – This occurs a cholesterol plaque ruptures and a blood clot forms, which results in the blockage of blood flow to the heart. The reduced blood flow to the heart may damage the heart muscle. Immediate treatment is crucial since the longer it takes for treatment to arrive, the more damage there is to the heart muscle.
Is it angina or a heart attack? Both conditions can involve chest pain and other similar symptoms. If the pain changes in quality, lasts more than 15 minutes or doesn’t respond to the nitroglycerin tablets prescribed by your doctor, get immediate medical attention. This may indicate a heart attack and the need for medical evaluation.
- Heart failure – This condition occurs when the heart becomes too weak to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. This leads to inadequate blood flow to vital organs such as the kidneys and buildup of fluid in other vital organs such as the lungs. This can lead to symptoms such as swelling, trouble breathing, and feeling tired. Eventually, heart failure can lead to kidney and liver diseases.
- Abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) – Inadequate blood supply to the heart or damage to heart tissue can disrupt the heart’s electrical impulses, resulting in abnormal heart rhythms.
This is dangerous as blood clots can pool in your heart as a result of the arrhythmia. Some irregular heart rhythms are life-threatening by themselves.
Coronary artery disease symptoms: When to see a doctor
Go see a doctor immediately if you suspect you’re having a heart attack. Better yet, see a doctor when you have risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, tobacco use, diabetes, a strong family history of heart disease, or obesity. The doctor may want to assess your condition to rule out coronary artery disease.
Who is at risk for Coronary Artery Disease?
There are a number of risk factors that may increase the chances of coronary artery disease, such as:
- Being over 65
- Sex – Generally, men have a greater risk of coronary artery disease. The risk for women increases after menopause.
- Family history – If your father or a brother was diagnosed with heart disease before age 55, and if your mother or a sister has coronary artery before age 65, then you are at risk of coronary artery disease.
- Smoking – Smokers have a significantly increased risk of heart disease. Exposure to secondhand smoke also increases risk of coronary artery disease.
- High blood pressure – Uncontrolled high blood pressure can harden and thicken arteries, and narrow the channel through which blood can flow.
- High blood cholesterol levels – High levels of cholesterol in the blood increases the risk of formation of plaque and atherosclerosis.
- Diabetes – Diabetes, specifically Type 2 diabetes, share similar risk factors with coronary artery disease, such as obesity and high blood pressure.
- Overweight or obesity – Being obese or overweight can worsen other risk factors for coronary artery disease.
- Physical inactivity – Lack of exercise heightens other risk factors associated with coronary artery disease.
- High stress – When unrelieved, stress in life may damage the arteries and worsen other risk factors for coronary artery disease.
- Unhealthy diet – A diet rich in high amounts of saturated fat, trans-unsaturated fat, salt, and sugar can increase your risk of coronary artery disease.
These risk factors often occur in clusters, and put individuals at even greater risk of heart disease.
Symptoms of coronary artery disease often manifest when heart disease is at an advanced stage.
See a doctor when you experience any coronary artery disease symptoms to determine an appropriate protocol for care and management.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.