Coronary artery disease (CAD) is impaired blood flow in your coronary arteries. These arteries supply blood to the heart. When blood flow to the heart is reduced, the heart is not able to do its job as well as it should. This can lead to a variety of complications.
Over time, CAD can lead to heart failure. Heart failure means that your heart is not able to pump enough blood to your body. This can result in fluid buildup in the lungs, difficulty breathing, and swelling of the legs, liver, or abdomen.
An abnormal heartbeat is called an arrhythmia. When a person is at rest, the heart normally beats about 60 to 80 times per minute in a predictable, steady pattern and with consistent force. Three types of arrhythmias can develop in people with CAD:
- bradycardia: a slow heartbeat
- tachycardia: a fast heartbeat
- fibrillation: a chaotic, quivering rhythm that is ineffective in pumping blood out of the atria and into the body for circulation. Over time, mild fibrillation can cause stroke or heart failure.
Certain types of arrhythmias can cause the heart to lose its pumping ability without warning. This kind of cardiac arrest causes sudden death if the heart’s normal rhythm is not restored immediately by an external defibrillator device or an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator.
Reduced blood flow in your coronary arteries can mean that your heart does not receive enough blood when you exert yourself. This can cause a type of pain called angina. Angina may feel like tightness, heaviness, or pressure in your chest. It may be an aching, burning, or numbness. It can feel like fullness or squeezing. Besides your chest, angina may be felt in your back, jaw, neck, arms, or left shoulder. The discomfort may extend into your right arm, down to your fingers, and into your upper abdomen. Angina pain is never felt above the ears or below the belly button.
If the plaque in your arteries ruptures, a clot can form. This can greatly decrease or block blood flow to your heart, causing a heart attack. The lack of blood flow can cause damage to your heart. Part of your heart tissue may die.
If blood flow to the heart is blocked, it can cause sudden death.
The process that causes plaque to accumulate in the coronary arteries affects all the arteries in the body. The carotid arteries in the neck supply blood to the brain. Atherosclerotic plaques in these arteries can cause strokes. Plaques elsewhere can impede blood flow within the arteries that supply the legs, arms, or vital organs, or they can lead to life-threatening rupture of the aorta, the largest artery in the body.
The earlier CAD is diagnosed, the better your outcome is likely to be. For some people, changes in diet and lifestyle will be enough to slow the progression of the disease. For others, medication or surgery will be necessary. It is important that you follow your doctor’s instructions regarding the treatment of your CAD. Each person is different. Be sure to follow the treatment plan that is best for you.