Coronary Artery Disease - Topic Overview

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What is coronary artery disease?

Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease. It's also the number one killer of both men and women in the United States.

When you have it, your heart muscle doesn't get enough blood. This can lead to serious problems, including heart attack.

It can be a shock to find out that you have coronary artery disease. Many people only find out when they have a heart attack. Whether or not you have had a heart attack, there are many things you can do to slow coronary artery disease and reduce your risk of future problems.

What causes coronary artery disease?

Coronary artery disease is caused by hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis camera.gif. This means that fatty deposits called plaque (say "plak") build up inside the arteries. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood throughout your body.

Atherosclerosis can affect any arteries in the body. When it occurs in the ones that supply blood to the heart (the coronary arteries camera.gif), it is called coronary artery disease.

When plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, the heart may not get the blood it needs to work well. Over time, this can weaken or damage the heart. If a plaque tears, the body tries to fix the tear by forming a blood clot around it. The clot can block blood flow to the heart and cause a heart attack camera.gif.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms can happen when the heart is working harder and needs more oxygen, such as during exercise. Symptoms include:

  • Angina (say "ANN-juh-nuh" or "ann-JY-nuh"), which most often is chest pain or discomfort or a strange feeling in the chest.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Heart attack. A heart attack is sometimes the first sign of coronary artery disease.

Less common symptoms include a fast heartbeat, feeling sick to your stomach, and increased sweating. Some people don't have any symptoms. In rare cases, a person can have a "silent" heart attack, without symptoms.

How is coronary artery disease diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask questions about your past health and your risk factors. Risk factors are things that increase the chance that you will have coronary artery disease.

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Some common risk factors are being older than 65; smoking; having high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes; and having heart disease in your family.

If your doctor thinks that you have coronary artery disease, you may have tests to check how well your heart is working. These tests include an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), a chest X-ray, an exercise electrocardiogram, and blood tests. You may also have a coronary angiogram to check blood flow to the heart.

How is it treated?

Treatment focuses on lowering your risk for heart attack and stroke and managing your symptoms. Lifestyle changes, medicine, and procedures are used.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.© 1995-2015 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

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