What is Coronary Artery Disease?headingContent

Posted on August 30, 2016

image of a heartCoronary artery disease is a process in which the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle, the coronary arteries, are narrowed due to build-up of abnormal deposits in the walls of the arteries. These build-ups, medically called atherosclerotic plaques (or simply blockages) are made of cholesterol, collagen and different cell types. When the narrowing of the affected artery reaches a certain level, the flow of blood to the heart is restricted; this may lead to symptoms and serious health consequences.

Depending on the degree in narrowing of the artery, the location and number of blockages, as well as the speed with which they develop, a person may experience a wide range of symptoms including chest pain and shortness of breath. If the blockages are mild and not obstructing the flow of blood to the heart, then the individual will experience no symptoms related to them. Most people with coronary artery disease have only mild blockages that they are unaware of, and they tend to become more prevalent as the person ages.

In a smaller percentage of people, the blockage(s) have grown to the point of restricting blood flow to the heart. Most of those patients experience symptoms related to it. The most common

symptom is a particular type of chest pain, called angina. A number of patients, especially among women and the elderly will experience unusual or atypicalsymptoms. A minority of patients will experience no symptoms even when the blockage is severe. In the most advanced stage of the disease the blockage reaches a critical level where the heart muscle cells are deprived of oxygen-carrying blood and begin to die. This is called a myocardial infarction, or a heart attack, which is a serious condition and may lead to heart muscle damage and weakening, or even death.

The good news is that there has been a tremendous amount of progress made in the diagnosis and treatment of coronary artery disease. Because of the varying presentations and the complexity of this disease, only a medical professional can make an accurate diagnosis using a number of available tools. These tools consist of things as simple as taking a patient’s history, physical examination and blood work, to tests like an electrocardiogram (ECG), various types of stress tests and other imaging modalities, or even invasive procedures, such as a cardiac catheterization.

The treatment of coronary artery disease has evolved a lot over the last few decades. The cornerstone of treatment consists of interventions aimed at slowing the progression of the disease, such as quitting smoking, eating healthy, increasing physical activity, and managing problems like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. This is often coupled with medications that have been proven beneficial. When the above measures are not enough, more advanced procedures may be needed. One such procedure is a coronary artery stent – a metal spring placed in the coronary artery through the skin, in order to open the blockage and keep it open. In most advanced cases open heart surgery, or coronary artery bypass grafting, may be required.