Coronary artery disease (sometimes referred to interchangeably as coronary heart disease or ischemic heart disease) occurs when the arteries responsible for carrying blood to the heart become hardened and narrowed. This is usually due to atherosclerosis, which is a progressive buildup of plaque on the arteries’ inner walls.

Because less blood can flow through the arteries, the heart eventually can’t get the oxygen and nutrients it needs to properly function, which can lead to myocardial ischemia or a heart attack. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease in the United States.

Causes of Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease occurs as a result of plaque buildup on the inner walls of the arteries. This plaque is composed of cholesterol, fatty deposits and other substances. Plaque buildup starts at a young age—in fact, even before a child becomes a teenager, his or her blood vessel walls can start showing streaks of fat. Certain lifestyle factors can increase someone’s risk of developing coronary artery disease, such as:
  • Eating an unhealthy diet
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking
  • Failing to exercise and control stress and anger levels

Symptoms of Coronary Artery Disease

One of the most common symptoms of coronary artery disease is angina, which is characterized by chest pain or discomfort that can also extend into the shoulders, arms, jaw, neck and back. Many people report feeling heaviness, fullness, tightness, numbness or an aching, burning or squeezing sensation. Angina attacks typically last up to 15 minutes and often occur during exercise or stressful situations, although they can sometimes occur while a person is at rest.  

Other symptoms of coronary artery disease include:

  • Heart palpitations (irregular heartbeats) 
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Fatigue 
  • Weakness 
  • Dizziness 
  • Nausea 
  • Sweating 

It’s important to note that some individuals with coronary artery disease don’t experience any symptoms. 

Diagnosing Coronary Artery Disease 

Physicians often diagnose coronary artery disease by performing a physical examination and conducting diagnostic tests such as: 

  • Blood tests 
  • Cardiac catheterization 
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans 
  • Coronary angiograms  
  • Echocardiograms 
  • Electrocardiograms (EKGs) 
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans 
  • Nuclear imaging

Treatment for Coronary Artery Disease 

In addition to recommending that patients make certain lifestyle changes—such as eating a heart-healthy diet, exercising, limiting their alcohol use, quitting smoking and managing existing conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol—physicians often treat coronary artery disease by prescribing medication.  

Some individuals with coronary artery disease will require surgery such as: 

  • Balloon angioplasty 
  • Laser angioplasty 
  • Stenting 
  • Atherectomy 
  • Coronary artery bypass graft (CABG)
  • Heart transplant in cases of severe heart failure 

The multidisciplinary team at Tampa General Hospital’s Heart and Vascular Institute—which includes board-certified cardiac and vascular surgeons, cardiologists, diagnostic radiologists, interventional radiologists, electrophysiologists and specialized cardiac care nurses—provides comprehensive, individualized care for coronary artery disease and a number of other cardiovascular conditions.