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What Is Coronary Artery Disease?


Coronary artery disease (CAD) is impaired blood flow in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Also known as called coronary heart disease (CHD), CAD is the most common form of heart disease and affects approximately 16.8 million Americans. It’s also the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. It’s estimated that every 34 seconds someone in the United States will have a heart attack. A heart attack can come from untreated CAD.

Causes of coronary artery disease

The most common cause of CAD is plaque buildup in the arteries, or atherosclerosis. Reduced blood flow occurs when one or more of these arteries becomes partially or completely blocked.

The four primary coronary arteries are located on the surface of the heart:

  • right main coronary artery
  • left main coronary artery
  • circumflex artery
  • left anterior descending artery

These arteries bring oxygen and glucose-rich blood to your heart. Your heart is a muscle that’s responsible for pumping blood throughout your body. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a healthy heart moves approximately 3,000 gallons of blood through your body every day. Like any other organ or muscle, your heart must receive an adequate, dependable supply of blood in order to carry out its work. Reduced blood flow to your heart can cause symptoms of CAD.

Other rare causes of damage or blockage to the coronary artery also limit blood flow to the heart.

Symptoms of CAD

When your heart doesn’t get enough blood, you may experience a variety of symptoms. Angina (chest discomfort) is the most common symptom of CAD. Some people describe this discomfort as:

  • chest pain
  • heaviness
  • tightness
  • burning
  • squeezing

These symptoms can also be mistaken for heartburn or indigestion.

Other symptoms of CAD include:

You may experience more symptoms when your blood flow is more restricted. If a blockage cuts off blood flow completely, your heart muscle will start to die. This is a heart attack. Do not ignore any of these symptoms, especially if they last longer than five minutes. Immediate medical treatment is necessary.

Symptoms of CAD for women

Women may also experience the above symptoms, but they’re also more likely to have:

Men have a higher risk of developing heart disease than premenopausal women. Postmenopausal women have about the same risk as men.

Due to decreased blood flow, your heart may also:

  • become weak
  • develop abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia)
  • fail to pump as much blood as your body needs

Your doctor will detect these heart abnormalities during diagnosis.

Risk factors for CAD

Understanding the risk factors for CAD can help with your plan to prevent or decrease the likelihood of developing the disease.

Risk factors include:

The risk for CAD also increases with age. Men have a greater risk for the disease beginning at age 45, and women have a greater risk beginning at age 55. The risk for coronary artery disease is also higher if you have a family history of the disease.

Diagnosing CAD

Diagnosing CAD requires a review of your medical history, a physical examination, and other medical testing. These tests include:

Electrocardiogram: This test monitors electrical signals that travel through your heart. It helps your doctor determine whether you’ve had a heart attack.

Echocardiogram: This imaging test uses sound waves to create a picture of your heart. The results of this test reveal whether your heart is functioning properly.

Stress test: This particular test measures the amount of blood flow to your heart during physical activity and while at rest. The test monitors your heart while you walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike.

Cardiac catheterization: During this procedure, your doctor injects a special dye into your cardiac arteries through a catheter inserted through your groin or arm. The dye helps create an image of your coronary arteries and identify any blockages.

Heart CT scan: Your doctor may use this imaging test to check for calcium deposits in your arteries.

What is the treatment for CAD?

It’s important to reduce your risk factors and seek treatment to lower the chance of a heart attack or stroke, if you’re diagnosed with CAD. Treatment also depends on your current health condition, risk factors, and overall wellbeing. For example, your doctor may prescribe medication to treat high cholesterol or high blood pressure, or you may receive medication to control blood sugar if you have diabetes.

Lifestyle changes can also reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. For example:

If your condition does not improve with lifestyle changes and medication, your doctor may recommend a procedure to increase blood flow to your heart. These procedures may be:

  • balloon angioplasty, to widen blocked arteries and remove plaque buildup, usually with insertion of a stent to keep the vessel open after the procedure
  • coronary artery bypass graft surgery, to restore blood flow to the heart
  • enhanced external counter pulsation, a non-invasive procedure to stimulate the formation of new blood vessels around clogged arteries

What is the outlook for CAD?

Everyone’s outlook for CAD is different. You have better chances of preventing extensive damage to your heart the earlier you can start your treatment or implement lifestyle changes. It is important to follow your doctor’s instructions. Take medications as directed, and make the recommended lifestyle changes. If you have a higher risk for CAD, you can prevent the disease by reducing your risk factors. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team and Valencia Higuera
Medically reviewed on: Dec 16, 2016: Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, CNE, COI

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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