What is Coronary Artery Disease?

Coronary Artery Disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States. It is a disease that involves a narrowing of the blood vessels that supply blood, oxygen and other nutrients to the muscle of the heart. It may seem strange if you haven't studied anatomy and physiology, but even though the heart has blood flowing through it constantly, this blood does not supply oxygen and nutrients to the muscle of the heart. Then what does? The coronary vascular system contains 3 main arteries – the Left Anterior Descending artery, the Circumflex artery and the Right Coronary Artery – these arteries branch off into multiple smaller arteries that supply blood to the areas further away from the main arteries. Coronary artery disease can affect both the large vessels and the small vessels.

Coronary artery disease has many risk factors, some that you can change (being overweight, lack of exercise, smoking) some that you can control (diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol levels) and some that you can't (age, gender, family history). Most often coronary artery disease is caused by atherosclerosis. This is a build-up of fats and other deposits that cause a plaque to form inside the blood vessels. This plaque attaches itself to the wall of the blood vessel. Soon other pieces of plaque find it and attach themselves also, creating a build-up of debris and less area for the blood to pass through.

One of the nice things about our blood vessels is that they can usually expand or contract depending on the amount of blood that needs to get through. But when a person has coronary artery disease the blood vessels around their heart lose that ability to stretch. Now, add to this some plaque build-up and the need for more blood to get through (i.e. exercise, stress) and it can result in an obstruction of blood flow. If your coronary artery disease mostly involves the small vessels this can lead to intermittent chest pain, also known as angina, which is usually relieved by resting/removing the stress and certain medications your doctor can prescribe. It can also lead to small areas of damaged heart muscle, which may or may not be reversible. But if your coronary artery disease involves major blockage of a large vessel or if a piece of the plaque falls off blocking the blood vessel completely this can lead to a major heart attack/heart failure.

Treatment of Coronary Artery Disease includes medications prescribed by your doctor, lifestyle changes, minimally invasive medical procedures, and possible open heart surgery.

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