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What is Coronary Heart Disease?

What is Coronary Heart Disease?

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is a narrowing of the major blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to your heart. These blood vessels, known as your coronary arteries, are located on the outside of the heart and have small branches that supply blood to the heart muscle.

The heart muscle, like all other tissues in the body, needs oxygen-rich blood to function. If the coronary arteries become diseased or damaged, blood flow becomes restricted due to a buildup of plaque, and the heart becomes compromised.

Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease and the leading cause of death in the United States for men and women.

What Causes Coronary Heart Disease?

Coronary heart disease, also commonly referred to as coronary artery disease and ischemic heart disease, does not develop overnight. Instead, it’s a cardiovascular disease that develops over time as the arteries become inflamed and blocked with fatty deposits made of cholesterol.

Plaque buildup happens to everyone, and it’s the speed at which it develops that differs from person to person. Blockages can begin to form as early as childhood and continue to thicken and enlarge throughout adulthood. The thickening and buildup of plaque in the arteries is called atherosclerosis and can be caused by various risk factors, including:

  • Family history of heart disease
  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Stress
  • Sedentary lifestyle (not being physically active)

How Plaque Can Lead To A Heart Attack

Your body naturally tries to fight back when plaque begins to form. White blood cells attempt to attack and trap the cholesterol lodged in the wall of the artery. This only causes more inflammation and results in the artery wall forming a cap over the plaque. Over time, pressure placed on the cap due to a spike In blood pressure or another cause can result in the cap breaking away and plaque rupturing and forming blood clots. Blood clots can develop complete blockages causing a heart attack.

Symptoms of CHD

Some people with coronary heart disease have no symptoms. This is especially true in the early stages of the disease. Symptoms depend on the severity of the heart disease. Symptoms can also vary by gender, as women can experience slightly different symptoms than men.

It can take years or even decades for symptoms to become noticeable. Once your arteries become narrow and it’s more difficult for your heart to pump oxygen-rich blood, you may experience mild symptoms, including chest pain, or angina, and shortness of breath. This can occur during exercise or even while at rest. Chest pain can feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or simply pain in the chest behind the breastbone.

With severe coronary heart disease that results in a heart attack and complete loss of blood supply to the heart, symptoms include:

  • Chest tightness with pain and discomfort traveling down your left shoulder, arms, neck, back, or jaw
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tiredness
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Weakness

Women suffering from a coronary syndrome or heart attack may experience the above symptoms as well as:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Back pain
  • Anxiety
  • Cold sweats

How is Coronary Heart Disease Diagnosed?

Unless it’s an emergency and you suspect you are having a heart attack or stroke, in which case, call 911 immediately, speak with your physician about any CHD-related symptoms you may be experiencing.

Your physician will perform a physical exam and review your medical history as well as your risk factors. In addition to a physical exam, diagnostic tests for coronary heart disease may include:

  • Blood tests to check the levels and types of fats in your blood
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) to record the electrical activity of your heart. This helps to measure your heart’s rhythm, speed, and evenness to detect any damage to the heart muscle.
  • Exercise stress test to monitor your heart rate during activity. For this test you walk on a treadmill.
  • Echocardiogram (ECG) to check the overall function of your heart and how well the heart’s chambers and valves are pumping blood through your heart. This test captures moving images of your heart using ultrasound technology.
  • Cardiac catheterization to locate the narrowing and blockages within the veins. For this test, a thin, flexible tube is guided into the coronary arteries of your heart. A contrasting agent is then injected into an artery so X-rays can be taken to check for flow and blockages.

Coronary Heart Disease Treatment

Treatment depends on several factors, including your age, health, and degree of CHD. For early or mild cases of coronary heart disease, treatment includes monitoring and making lifestyle changes to reduce your risk factors. Eating a healthy diet, limiting alcohol use, increasing activity levels, and not smoking can help prevent CHD from getting worse.

In some cases, your physician may prescribe medications to lower your blood pressure, reduce your cholesterol, and decrease blood clotting.

In more severe cases of CHD, surgical treatments may be necessary. Surgical treatments can include:

  • Balloon angioplasty, where a small balloon is inserted into the blocked artery and inflated to flatten the plaque against the artery wall to create a bigger opening for blood flow.
  • Stent placement where a permanent tiny mesh coil is inserted into the blocked artery and expanded to keep the artery open.
  • Bypass surgery, or coronary artery bypass, where a surgeon creates a new path to your heart using a vein that is grafted and placed above or below the blocked area enabling blood to flow around the blockage and into the heart.

Protect Your Heart With A Healthy Lifestyle

Coronary heart disease is not 100 percent preventable. However, the best way to prevent CHD or prevent it from getting worse is to live a healthy lifestyle and establish heart-healthy habits.

Always follow your doctor’s orders and suggestions, and don’t skip follow-up visits. Eat a healthy diet that is low in fat and salt and get regular exercise.

Even if you already have heart disease, establishing a healthy lifestyle will help you protect your heart and prevent further damage. If you’re experiencing any signs of heart disease, contact your healthcare provider today! Let a VIPcare physician near you help create a management plan to get you healthy and keep you healthy!