Heart disease is also referred to as coronary artery disease, atherosclerosis, atherosclerotic heart disease or hardening of the arteries. It is a condition in which fatty substances gradually build up in your blood vessels, causing the vessels to become more narrow and restricting the flow of blood through the vessel. This buildup is common in the small arteries of the heart, brain, kidneys, legs and neck.
The arteries in your heart (coronary arteries), which are about the size of a strand of spaghetti, are blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients that feed the heart muscle. At birth the inside walls of the arteries are smooth, like the inside walls of a new water pipe, allowing blood to flow easily through the vessel.
Just as water pipes may gradually develop a buildup of minerals and debris on the inside surface causing the water to flow more slowly, the arteries may gradually develop a buildup of plaque on the inside surface of the arteries, restricting the blood flow. Plaque is made up of cholesterol, which is fatty deposits, and fibrous tissue, which is scar tissue that forms where an artery has been damaged. Plaque may have begun to build up in your arteries when you were young; however you may not notice any problems or effects until later in life. Usually symptoms begin when there is at least a 75 percent blockage in your artery. Plaque may also build up in more than one place in your artery.
The narrowings that result from the buildup of plaque in heart disease are also known as plaques, lesions, clogged areas, atherosclerosis and arteriosclerosis. When plaque builds up, it restricts the flow of blood to the heart, thereby restricting the amount of oxygen and nutrients that the heart receives from the blood. If you increase your heart activity with any exercise, exertion or mental or emotional stress, you are increasing your heart’s need for oxygen, which is already in limited supply. If the heart does not receive enough oxygen, it is experiencing ischemia, which may cause heart pain known as angina or a heart attack.
Symptoms of Coronary Artery Disease
The amount of buildup and the location of the blockages determine the symptoms you will experience when you have heart disease (coronary artery disease/atherosclerosis). Symptoms of heart disease include angina and heart attacks. Each of these has its own symptoms as well.
If you have experienced the symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain, shortness of breath or dizziness, you should consult your physician. There are several tests your physician can run to help diagnose coronary artery disease, as well as the severity of the disease, if you are found to have it. Your physician may run one or more tests. Click on one of the tests listed for a more detailed description of each procedure, as well as information about preparation, length and the effects of each test.
Angina, or angina pectoris, is another name for heart pain. It is a temporary condition that serves as a warning signal telling you to slow down. It is also an early sign of heart disease. Angina typically occurs during exertion when the heart does not receive enough oxygen as a result of a blocked coronary artery. Angina affects each person differently, but if you experience angina you may feel one or more of the following symptoms:
- pain, pressure or a burning sensation under your breastbone
- pain, pressure or a burning sensation extending to your shoulders, back, neck, jaw or down your arm (typically your left arm)
- shortness of breath
- profuse sweating