Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease (CAD)—also known as atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries or coronary heart disease—is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women, affecting more than 13 million people. Unfortunately CAD often can go undetected for decades and patients might not know they have it until they have a heart attack.

In CAD, fatty cholesterol deposits, known as plaque, build up on the walls of the small arterial vessels that supply the heart with blood. This narrowing restricts blood flow to the heart muscle, starving it of the oxygen and nutrients it needs to operate properly. During periods of increased exertion or stress, the arteries may not be able to supply enough oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle and, in extreme cases the blockage can cause a heart attack.

The main symptom of coronary artery disease is angina, or chest pain. Although usually felt in the chest, angina also may be experienced in the left shoulder, arms, neck, back, or jaw. CAD also can be accompanied by shortness of breath, rapid or irregular heartbeat, nausea, dizziness and sweating and—especially in women, diabetics and the elderly—feelings of general weakness and fatigue.

Starting with a full physical examination and a discussion of your medical history and risk factors, your doctor ultimately will diagnose your CAD with a number of specific tests and procedures. These can include an electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG), an echocardiogram—including either an exercise or chemical stress test—or an invasive angiography, commonly referred to as cardiac catheterization, to view the arteries in action to gauge the level and severity of any blockages.

Treatment can range from such lifestyle changes as starting or increasing exercise routines, removing cholesterol, fat and salt from your diet and, if you are diabetic, controlling your blood sugar levels. There are a number of medications available to treat CAD and you doctor will prescribe the best one to fit your specific medical circumstances. In serious cases, invasive procedures might be needed, including balloon angioplasty or stent placement to open the artery, or even coronary artery bypass surgery.

As the nation’s top killer, coronary artery disease is a serious issue. If you have experienced bouts of angina (chest pain) or have a family history of high blood pressure or heart disease, get checked out by your doctor. For a  physician or cardiologist, call 1.877.GO MERCY or use our Find a Doctor Tool.