Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) is the disease that develops when your heart is starved of oxygen because of poor circulation and supply of blood to heart muscles. The leading cause of this disease is atherosclerosis of coronary arteries with cholesterol plaques reducing the size of the lumen of coronary vessels.
This condition progress rapidly or over months (acute or chronic) and will have unique signs and symptoms that guide diagnosis and management.
Basically, then arteries get narrow, their capacity to supply enough oxygen-rich blood to heart muscles is also reduced. Initially, your body will be able to adjust to the dwindling oxygen supply. Still, after a long time, you will start to develop marked coronary artery disease signs and symptoms as the plaque grows larger. You may experience:
- Angina/ chest pain. At times you will feel as though your chest is being squeezed. Sometimes there will be sharp, excruciating pain starting around the same spot as your heart and radiate towards your neck, back, or left hand. Usually, this pain begins when you are stressed or after taxing physical activity. However, the pain resolves after taking some rest from physical activity or being stress-free.
- Shortness of breath/ dyspnea. Because the heart and other body muscles don’t get enough oxygen to sustain various activities, you may experience sudden shortness of breath and rapid fatigue.
- Heart attack. Complete occlusion of coronary arteries results in a heart attack. The telltale sign of a heart attack is similar to angina with accompanied sweating and extreme breathlessness.
- A heart ultrasound will show various changes at this point. One of them is remodeling and enlargement of the heart itself with thinning of the heart muscle. Coronary ducts also look narrowed.
Unlike men, sometimes CHD can progress unnoticed in women who are more likely to have less typical signs and symptoms of a heart attack such as neck or jaw pain. However, most tend to have fatigue, nausea, and shortness of breath.
A heart attack can occur silently without showing any signs and symptoms!
When to see a doctor
Don’t wait if you think you have a heart attack but immediately call an ambulance or your local emergency number. If there is no emergency response in sight, drive yourself to the nearest hospital.
Talk with your doctor if you have any of the risk factors for coronary artery disease such as hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity and high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, or a family history of heart disease. Additional tests may be done by your doctor to rule out cardiac arrhythmias, angina pectoris, myocardial infarction, and sudden cardiac death.
Causes of Coronary Heart Disease
Damage to the inner lining of the coronary artery is thought to be the start of coronary artery disease, sometimes even during childhood. Leading causes of such damage includes:
- Diabetes or insulin resistance
- Obesity and high cholesterol
- A sedentary lifestyle
After the wall of the artery is damaged, cholesterol plaques and other cellular wastes start to collect at this point of injury. This process is called atherosclerosis. If the plaque ruptures, it attracts platelets and blood cells that clump to the site in a bid to repair the damage. The plaque grows larger and occludes vessels leading to a heart attack.
In some cases, coronary artery disease can develop where there are no known risk factors. Scientists are now trying to find the link of the disease with:
- Sleep apnea. This disorder causes sudden breathlessness while you’re sleeping. Sudden increase in blood pressure with a concurrent drop in oxygen levels during sleep apnea strains the cardiovascular system and maybe the origin of coronary artery disease.
- High-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP). The C-reactive protein is usually a sign of inflammation somewhere in the body. Detectable amounts of hs-CRP in your body are a risk factor for developing CHD.
- High triglycerides. High levels of triglycerides, especially in women, increase the risk of coronary artery disease.
- Homocysteine. Homocysteine is a type of amino acid the body uses to create proteins. However, if high, it may increase the risk of developing coronary artery disease.
- Preeclampsia. Sometimes in pregnancy, women may develop high blood pressure with high traces of proteins in urine. This is also a risk factor for developing CHD later in life.
- Alcohol use. Apart from causing a myriad of other conditions, alcohol also carries the risk of damaging heart muscles.
- Autoimmune diseases. People living with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other inflammatory disorders increase the risk of atherosclerosis.
If left untreated, coronary artery disease leads to:
- Chest pain (angina). Gradually, your coronary arteries will get narrower, and your heart will not get enough oxygen to be able to pump enough blood to other tissues. In the physical activity, the mismatch in demand vs. supply leads to chest pain and shortness of breath.
- Heart attack. If a small plaque breaks off from the main body, it will be carried further into smaller vessels and will cause complete blockage and trigger a heart attack due to total occlusion of blood supply. Damage depends on how quickly you get to the hospital.
- Arrhythmias/ abnormal heart rhythm. Insufficient blood and oxygen supply to the heart or damaged tissues can interfere with the heart’s electrical impulses causing abnormal rhythms.
- Heart failure. Chronic deprivation of nutrients and oxygen in some areas of your heart because of reduced blood flow, or if a heart attack has severely damaged the muscle structure, your heart will not be able to pump enough blood to meet the body’s demands. This is called heart failure.
It’s easy to reverse the lifestyle habits that lead to the development of CHD. A healthy lifestyle keeps your circulatory system functional and free of plaques. To improve your quality of life, follow these tips:
- Control your blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes
- Regularly exercise to give your heart a boost
- Quit smoking and excessive binging of alcohol
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Do away with stress
Experiencing a heart attack is not a death sentence. There is life after the diagnosis and things you could do to live a quality life. Live healthily and look after your health before it’s too late.
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