Coronary artery disease (CAD) is a condition that impairs blood flow through your coronary arteries. These arteries supply blood to the heart muscle. When blood flow to the heart muscle is reduced, the heart isn’t 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 isn’t able to pump enough blood to your body. This can cause 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, which is a slow heartbeat
- tachycardia, which is a fast heartbeat
- fibrillation, which is a chaotic, quivering rhythm
Fibrillation causes your heart to be ineffective at pumping blood out of the atria and into your body for circulation. Over time, mild fibrillation can cause a stroke or heart failure.
Certain types of arrhythmias can cause your heart to lose its pumping ability without warning. This kind of cardiac arrest causes sudden death if an external defibrillator device or an implantable cardioverter defibrillator don’t restore your heart’s normal rhythm immediately.
Reduced blood flow in your coronary arteries can mean that your heart doesn’t receive enough blood when you exert yourself. This can cause a type of pain called angina. Angina may cause chest numbness or the following sensations in your chest:
Besides your chest, you may feel angina in your:
- 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 bellybutton.
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 damage your heart. Part of your heart tissue may die.
If blood flow to your heart is blocked, it can cause sudden death.
Related arterial diseases
The process that causes plaque to accumulate in the coronary arteries affects all of 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, which is the largest artery in the body.
If you have CAD, the earlier you receive the diagnosis, 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. Follow your doctor’s instructions for treating CAD. Each person is different. Be sure to follow the treatment plan that’s best for you.