Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease among Americans. This serious condition often develops when atherosclerosis (a gradual buildup of plaque) causes the coronary arteries to become narrowed and hardened. This prevents the arteries from supplying the heart with oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood and the heart won’t be able to function as intended. As a result, myocardial ischemia or a heart attack can occur.

Coronary heart disease is often used interchangeably with coronary artery disease and ischemic heart disease, but the ischemia, or restriction of blood flow, precedes the heart disease itself.

Causes of Coronary Heart Disease

The plaque that builds up along an artery’s inner walls is made up of fatty deposits, cholesterol and a number of other substances. Eating an unhealthy diet that’s high in trans fats, salt and sugar can contribute to this buildup. In fact, streaks of fat can begin appearing on a child’s blood vessel walls even before he or she reaches the teenage years, so it’s important to start following a nutritious diet and exercising as early as possible in life.

Other risks for developing coronary heart disease include:

  • Smoking
  • Being stressed or angry on a frequent basis
  • Genetic disorders such as hypercholesterolemia (characterized by high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol)
  • The natural aging process

Symptoms of Coronary Heart Disease

Coronary heart disease often causes chest pain or tightness, which many people describe as a squeezing, aching feeling of fullness or heaviness. This sensation, which is known as angina, often lasts for up to 15 minutes and can extend from the chest into the jaw, neck, back, shoulders and arms. Angina can occur at any time—even while resting—but is often brought on when someone is exercising or in a stressful situation.

In addition to angina, coronary heart disease can cause the following symptoms:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Heart palpitations (irregular heartbeats)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
While it’s very common for individuals with coronary heart disease to experience one or more of these complaints, others don’t have any noticeable symptoms.

Diagnosing Coronary Heart Disease

If a physical examination suggests that a patient may have coronary heart disease, a physician may order one or more of the following tests to confirm the diagnosis:
  • Electrocardiograms (EKGs)
  • Echocardiograms
  • Coronary angiograms
  • Cardiac catheterization
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans
  • Nuclear imaging
  • Blood tests

Treatment for Coronary Heart Disease

Because coronary heart disease often develops as a result of unhealthy choices, a physician may recommend making certain lifestyle changes first. This might include: 

  • Eating a more nutritious diet
  • Exercising more often
  • Drinking less alcohol
  • Quitting smoking
  • Effectively managing existing conditions, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes

In addition to these lifestyle adjustments, treatment for coronary heart disease may involve prescription medication or one of the following surgical procedures: 

  • Balloon angioplasty
  • Laser angioplasty
  • Stenting
  • Atherectomy
  • Coronary artery bypass graft (CABG)
  • Heart transplant

Ultimately, a treatment plan created by the skilled professionals at Tampa General Hospital’s Heart and Vascular Institute will depend on a variety of factors, including the number of affected arteries and the severity of the blockages.