Coronary artery disease – Symptoms and causes


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Stephen Kopecky, M.D., Cardiovascular Disease, Mayo Clinic: I’m Dr. Stephen Kopecky, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic. In this video, we’ll cover the basics of coronary artery disease. What is it? Who gets it? The symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. Whether you’re looking for answers for yourself or someone you love, we’re here to give you the best information available.

Coronary artery disease, also called CAD, is a condition that affects your heart. It is the most common heart disease in the United States. CAD happens when coronary arteries struggle to supply the heart with enough blood, oxygen and nutrients. Cholesterol deposits, or plaques, are almost always to blame. These buildups narrow your arteries, decreasing blood flow to your heart. This can cause chest pain, shortness of breath or even a heart attack. CAD typically takes a long time to develop. So often, patients don’t know that they have it until there’s a problem. But there are ways to prevent coronary artery disease, and ways to know if you’re at risk and ways to treat it.

Who gets it?

Anyone can develop CAD. It begins when fats, cholesterols and other substances gather along the walls of your arteries. This process is called atherosclerosis. It’s typically no cause for concern. However, too much buildup can lead to a blockage, obstructing blood flow. There are a number of risk factors, common red flags, that can contribute to this and ultimately lead to coronary artery disease. First, getting older can mean more damaged and narrowed arteries. Second, men are generally at a greater risk. But the risk for women increases after menopause. Existing health conditions matter, too. High blood pressure can thicken your arteries, narrowing your blood flow. High cholesterol levels can increase the rate of plaque buildup. Diabetes is also associated with higher risk, as is being overweight. Your lifestyle plays a large role as well. Physical inactivity, long periods of unrelieved stress in your life, an unhealthy diet and smoking can all increase your risk. And finally, family history. If a close relative was diagnosed at an early age with heart disease, you’re at a greater risk. All these factors together can paint a picture of your risk for developing CAD.

What are the symptoms?

When coronary arteries become narrow, the heart doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood. Remember, unlike most pumps, the heart has to pump its own energy supply. It’s working harder with less. And you may begin to notice these signs and symptoms of pressure or tightness in your chest. This pain is called angina. It may feel like somebody is standing on your chest. When your heart can’t pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs, you might develop shortness of breath or extreme fatigue during activities. And if an artery becomes totally blocked, it leads to a heart attack. Classic signs and symptoms of a heart attack include crushing, substernal chest pain, pain in your shoulders or arms, shortness of breath, and sweating. However, many heart attacks have minimal or no symptoms and are found later during routine testing.

How is it diagnosed?

Diagnosing CAD starts by talking to your doctor. They’ll be able to look at your medical history, do a physical exam and order routine blood work. Depending on that, they may suggest one or more of the following tests: an electrocardiogram or ECG, an echocardiogram or soundwave test of the heart, stress test, cardiac catheterization and angiogram, or a cardiac CT scan.

How is it treated?

Treating coronary artery disease usually means making changes to your lifestyle. This might be eating healthier foods, exercising regularly, losing excess weight, reducing stress or quitting smoking. The good news is these changes can do a lot to improve your outlook. Living a healthier life translates to having healthier arteries. When necessary, treatment could involve drugs like aspirin, cholesterol-modifying medications, beta-blockers, or certain medical procedures like angioplasty or coronary artery bypass surgery.

What now?

Discovering you have coronary artery disease can be overwhelming. But be encouraged. There are things you can do to manage and live with this condition. Reducing cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, quitting tobacco, eating healthier, exercising and managing your stress can make a world of difference. Better heart health starts by educating yourself. So don’t be afraid to seek out information and ask your doctors about coronary artery disease. If you’d like to learn even more about this condition, watch our other related videos or visit We wish you well.


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