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Coronary Artery Disease


The heart

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 atherosclerosisClick here to see an illustration.. 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 arteriesClick here to see an illustration.), it is called coronary artery disease.

When plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, the heart doesn't 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 attackClick here to see an illustration..

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.

To find out your risk for a heart attack in the next 10 years, use this Interactive Tool: Are You at Risk for a Heart Attack?Click here to see an interactive tool.

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.

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.

  • Lifestyle changes include quitting smoking (if you smoke), eating heart-healthy foods, getting regular exercise, staying at a healthy weight, lowing your stress level, and limiting how much alcohol you drink. A cardiac rehab program can help you make these changes.
  • Medicines can help you lower high cholesterol and high blood pressure, manage angina, and lower your risk of having a blood clot.
  • Procedures that improve blood flow to the heart include angioplastyClick here to see an illustration. and bypass surgeryClick here to see an illustration..
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