Coronary artery disease

Coronary artery disease develops when your coronary arteries — the major blood vessels that supply your heart with blood, oxygen and nutrients — become damaged or diseased. Cholesterol-containing deposits (plaque) in your arteries and inflammation are usually to blame for coronary artery disease.

When plaques build up, they narrow your coronary arteries, decreasing blood flow to your heart. Eventually, the decreased blood flow may cause chest pain (angina), shortness of breath, or other coronary artery disease signs and symptoms. A complete blockage can cause a heart attack.

Because coronary artery disease often develops over decades, it can go unnoticed until you have a heart attack. But there's plenty you can do to prevent and treat coronary artery disease. Start by committing to a healthy lifestyle.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

If your coronary arteries narrow, they can't supply enough oxygen-rich blood to your heart — especially when it's beating hard, such as during exercise. At first, the decreased blood flow may not cause any coronary artery disease symptoms. As the plaques continue to build up in your coronary arteries, however, you may develop coronary artery disease signs and symptoms, including:

  • Chest pain (angina). You may feel pressure or tightness in your chest, as if someone were standing on your chest. The pain, referred to as angina, is usually triggered by physical or emotional stress. It typically goes away within minutes after stopping the stressful activity. In some people, especially women, this pain may be fleeting or sharp and felt in the abdomen, back or arm.
  • Shortness of breath. If your heart can't pump enough blood to meet your body's needs, you may develop shortness of breath or extreme fatigue with exertion.
  • Heart attack. A completely blocked coronary artery may cause a heart attack. The classic signs and symptoms of a heart attack include crushing pressure in your chest and pain in your shoulder or arm, sometimes with shortness of breath and sweating. Women are somewhat more likely than men are to experience less typical signs and symptoms of a heart attack, such as nausea and back or jaw pain. Sometimes a heart attack occurs without any apparent signs or symptoms.

When to see a doctor

If you suspect you're having a heart attack, immediately call 911 or your local emergency number. If you don't have access to emergency medical services, have someone drive you to the nearest hospital. Drive yourself only as a last resort.

If you have risk factors for coronary artery disease — such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, tobacco use, diabetes or obesity — talk to your doctor. He or she may want to test you for the condition, especially if you have signs or symptoms of narrowed arteries. Even if you don't have evidence of coronary artery disease, your doctor may recommend aggressive treatment of your risk factors. Early diagnosis and treatment may stop progression of coronary artery disease and help prevent a heart attack.

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