Coronary artery disease is a condition that occurs when the major vessels that supply the heart with blood are damaged. These blood vessels also supply the heart with vital nutrients and oxygen. Coronary artery disease can cause plaque buildup leading to further damage. Regular checks of cholesterol levels will ensure this important factor remains normal and can help catch coronary artery disease early if it does develop.

Symptoms of Coronary Artery Disease

The three main symptoms of coronary artery disease are shortness of breath, angina, and heart attack. People may experience shortness of breath if their bodies aren't able to pump enough blood to the heart. Extreme fatigue is also common in individuals with coronary artery disease. Angina is a feeling of slight pressure or tightness in the chest and can occur with physical activity or emotional stressors. A heart attack feels more like a crushing pressure in the chest, with pain going down one side of the body. This sign is life-threatening and necessitates an immediate emergency call.

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Damage to the arteries that pump blood to the heart causes coronary artery disease. When these arteries become damaged, plaque can fill the damaged areas leading to a blockage. Several lifestyle factors and health conditions can cause damage to these arteries. A person may be at a higher risk if he or she smokes or lives a sedentary lifestyle. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes can also contribute.

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To diagnose coronary artery disease, the doctor will ask about symptoms and medical history.  The medical provider may also do a physical exam and recommend routine blood testing to check cholesterol levels. Other diagnostic tests check for blockages in the arteries.

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The doctor may choose to run an ECG or electrocardiogram, a stress test, and an echocardiogram. The machine can detect the number of electrical signals traveling through the heart, as well as previous heart attacks. The test is done over a 24-hour period as the patient goes about his or her normal daily routine. A stress test uses exercise equipment. The doctor asks the patient to walk on a treadmill and monitors their heart rate during the exercise. An echocardiogram produces pictures of the heart in real time, helping the physician find abnormalities in the way the heart is pumping.

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Treatments for Coronary Artery Disease

The doctor may suggest various treatment options, depending on the results of the tests. For some people, lifestyle changes can largely solve the problem. Some of these modifications include quitting cigarettes, eating healthier, exercising regularly, and reducing stress. These changes are usually the first option a doctor will recommend. If these do not suffice, medications can help treat coronary artery disease, as well, including cholesterol medications, beta blockers, and calcium channel blockers.

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Surgery for Coronary Artery Disease

Two surgical options are most common in treating coronary artery disease, to help remove plaque and repair damage to the arteries that pump blood into the heart. These operations are an aggressive form of treatment and are the last resort when lifestyle changes and medications do not work. Doctors may choose to do an angioplasty, wherein the surgeon places a ballon to reinflate the artery and a stent to maintain this opening; and coronary artery bypass, which requires grafting replacement arteries around the blockage.

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Risk Factors

A variety of factors increase one's risk of developing coronary artery disease. Aage and gender play a role in the condition, and men have a higher risk than women, though the latter's risk increases after menopause. The chance is also higher if an individual has a family history of heart disease, smokes, and has high blood pressure or cholesterol. Taking preventative measures will ensure the body remains healthy and at a lower risk of developing coronary artery disease.

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The risk factors that come with a diagnosis of this disease also provide clues to prevention. Smokers should consider quitting, and people with high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol should treat these pre-existing conditions accordingly. It is also essential to exercise and eat healthy foods low in salt and fat, and to take what measures are possible to lower stress.

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Chest pain is a common complication of coronary artery disease and is usually due to a lack of blood being pumped through your heart. An abnormal heart rhythm can also occur when blood isn’t flowing properly. When this happens, damage can cause the heart to beat in a strange rhythm. The most serious complications are a heart attack and heart failure. The latter occurs when the heart is suffering from a severe lack of oxygen for too long, leaving the muscle too weak to pump the amount of blood required.

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When to See A Doctor

Call 911 immediately if you have strong chest pains that resemble a heart attack. If you know you are at risk for coronary artery disease, talk to your doctor. He or she may test to ensure that you don’t have any blockages in your arteries that could cause complications in the future. While you're there, ask for recommendations for lifestyle changes.

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