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Coronary Artery Disease and Heart Attacks

Coronary artery disease (CAD) affects more people than any other heart disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CAD can lead to a heart attack if left untreated.

At Henry Ford Heart & Vascular, our heart specialists are national and international leaders in treating coronary artery disease. You receive comprehensive care from world-renowned experts in evaluating, diagnosing, preventing and treating CAD.

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What is coronary artery disease?

CAD affects the coronary arteries, which supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood. It develops as these arteries become narrow and clogged when cholesterol and other fatty deposits build up inside artery walls.

How can coronary artery disease cause a heart attack?

If one or more coronary arteries become completely blocked, a heart attack can happen. The lack of blood flow causes damage to the area of heart muscle that isn’t receiving blood and oxygen.

Symptoms of coronary artery disease and heart attack

In its early stages, CAD might not cause any symptoms. As CAD worsens, the decreasing blood flow can cause these symptoms:

  • Chest pain and discomfort (angina)
  • Fatigue during physical activity, even light activity such as climbing stairs
  • Shortness of breath

Some people experience no symptoms until they have a heart attack. In addition to the symptoms of CAD, heart attack symptoms can include:

  • Cold sweats
  • Pressure in your chest, which can range from tightness to a crushing feeling
  • Dizziness, light-headedness and weakness
  • Heart palpitations (irregular heartbeat)
  • Nausea, vomiting or indigestion
  • Pain in your jaw, neck, left shoulder, arms, back or stomach

Coronary artery disease and heart attack causes and risk factors

Atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque inside arteries, causes CAD and can affect blood vessels anywhere in the body. Plaque is cholesterol and other fatty substances that narrow and stiffen arteries as it builds up, reducing blood flow. CAD causes a heart attack when an artery becomes completely clogged by plaque.

Certain factors can increase your risk of CAD and heart attacks. Risk factors that you cannot change include:

  • Age and gender, with a higher risk in men age 45 and older and women age 55 and older
  • Family history of heart disease or heart attacks, especially if early in life

Risk factors that you can change or treat include:

  • Excess weight or obesity
  • High blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, another type of blood lipid (fat)
  • Low levels or lack of physical activity
  • Other conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease and certain autoimmune disorders
  • Smoking or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke or air pollution
  • Stress, inadequate sleep and sleep apnea
  • Unhealthy eating habits, overuse of alcohol or illicit drug use

Diagnosing coronary artery disease and heart attacks

Your diagnosis begins with a thorough evaluation and a complete physical exam. We also discuss your personal and family medical history and any risk factors.

If you have symptoms, you may need tests to confirm a diagnosis. The Henry Ford Cardiovascular Laboratories have earned accreditation in vascular testing from the Intersocietal Accreditation Commission. This accreditation reflects our commitment to high national standards for quality and safety in patient care.

Our cardiac imaging technologists and other specialized providers offer comprehensive testing, including cardiovascular stress tests and sophisticated cardiac imaging. Learn more about our heart diagnostic testing services available in our labs across the Detroit metro area.

CAD next steps
Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common form of heart disease, affecting more than 18 million people in the U.S. If you or a family member has recently been diagnosed with CAD, you may be wondering what comes next.

Treatment for coronary artery disease and heart attacks

The goals of treatment are to help relieve your symptoms, prevent CAD from getting worse and reduce your risk of heart attack. We work closely with you to tailor a treatment plan to your needs and preferences.

Depending on your risk factors, symptoms and overall health, you may need one or more types of treatment. Our treatment options include:

  • Recommendations for healthy lifestyle choices: You can often manage CAD in its early stages with healthy habits such as improving your diet and exercise. The same recommendations for heart disease prevention can also help treat CAD.
  • Medications: We prescribe medications to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, relieve chest pain, prevent and dissolve blood clots and relieve other CAD symptoms. You may also receive medications in the hospital as emergency treatment for heart attacks. These medications can dissolve blood clots, thin your blood to prevent clots and widen blood vessels to improve blood flow to the heart.
  • Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI): Our interventional cardiologists can treat many people who have blocked heart arteries using this minimally invasive procedure. Doctors use a catheter (long, narrow tube) to access the heart through a blood vessel and open blocked arteries. PCI, also called angioplasty, can treat CAD and heart attacks. Read about our Percutaneous Coronary Intervention Program.
  • Minimally invasive surgery: Our heart surgeons have expertise in minimally invasive surgery, which requires only a few small incisions. We can perform minimally invasive coronary artery bypass graft surgery for people who have one blocked artery. Learn more about minimally invasive heart surgery.
  • Robotic surgery: In some cases, we use robotic equipment to assist with procedures in tight spaces. The equipment includes a console and robotic arms, which our heart surgeons use to move instruments to perform the procedure. Read about robotic heart surgery.
  • Open-heart surgery: For people with more than one blocked heart artery, our heart surgeons perform open surgery to clear arteries and help prevent heart attacks. They may also perform these procedures as emergency treatment during or after a heart attack. Find out about our minimally invasive and open techniques for coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery.

Follow-up care for heart attacks and coronary artery disease

If you have heart surgery to treat CAD or a heart attack, you begin your recovery in our cardiac ICU (CICU). Our team of dedicated intensivists and their specialized staff monitors you closely during your stay.

Once you return home, your care includes follow-up visits with your cardiac surgeon and specialized cardiac rehab. Find out what to expect during heart surgery recovery.

Heart health screenings to prevent coronary artery disease and heart attacks

If you have risk factors for CAD or heart attack, you can have heart health screening tests during your regular checkups. Your doctor may do or order these tests:

  • Blood pressure measurement
  • Blood tests for cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose (sugar) and proteins that can be a sign of inflammation
  • Weight check

Schedule a heart surgery consultation

Request an in-person or virtual appointment with a heart team member for evaluation. Our cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons work together to plan your treatment, including heart surgery options.

  • Diagnosis and testing
  • Reduce your risk
  • Risk factors
At your initial visit, your cardiologist will ask you about any symptoms and conduct a complete physical exam as well as a medical and family history. Your physician may also order routine blood tests, such as a screening to check your cholesterol levels. In addition, we may refer you for advanced diagnostic testing at Henry Ford Cardiovascular Laboratories, where we offer a complete spectrum of testing.
Certain risk factors, such as age and family history, cannot be controlled. However, by adopting a healthy, balanced lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of developing coronary artery disease. This includes good nutrition, exercise, weight management, minimizing your stress and quitting smoking if you’re a smoker.

Major known risk factors for coronary artery disease include:

  • Cholesterol, including high LDL (bad) cholesterol, low HDL (good) cholesterol and high triglycerides (a type of fat)
  • High blood pressure
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Stress

In recent years, researchers have also identified other potential causes of heart disease. These include sleep apnea and high levels of homocysteine (an amino acid).


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