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Blocked Heart Arteries:
Symptoms, Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment

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1.What is Coronary artery disease?

Coronary artery disease (CAD), also called coronary heart disease (CHD), develops when the major blood vessels that supply the heart with blood, oxygen and nutrients become damaged or diseased.

The condition is usually caused by cholesterol-containing deposits called plaque. It is a waxy substance with a combination of cholesterol, fat and other substances which stick to the walls lining the blood vessels. Overtime they make arteries become harder and narrower and may cause a condition called atherosclerosis. Plaque buildup narrows coronary arteries, thereby decreasing the blood flow to the heart which eventually causes chest pain, shortness of breath or other signs and symptoms of coronary artery disease. Uncontrolled coronary artery disease or a complete blockage of arteries can cause a heart attack.

Coronary artery disease progresses over the years and it may remain unnoticed until the plaque buildup results in a blocked artery in heart leading to a heart attack. Regular health checkups can help in identifying the condition early and following a healthy lifestyle can help prevent the condition.

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2.Symptoms of Coronary Artery disease or Blocked Arteries

Blocked Arteries disease

Once the coronary arteries become narrow due to plaque buildup, the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the heart is disrupted. The demand increases during periods where the heart is beating hard, such is during exercise, climbing stairs or any other strenuous activity. Blocked artery symptoms will not be evident in the initial years but as plaque continues to build up in the arteries, patients may develop certain signs and symptoms including the following:

  • Chest pain (angina): This is the most common symptom of coronary artery disease. Some people refer to this chest discomfort as heaviness, tightness, chest pain, burning or squeezing. In some instances these symptoms can be mistaken for heartburn or indigestion. Individuals may experience pressure or tightness in the chest and the pain usually occurs in the middle or left side of the chest. The pain is generally triggered by physical or emotional stress and usually goes away within minutes of stopping the stressful activity like exercise. The pain may be fleeting or sharp in women and is felt in the neck, arm or back.
  • Shortness of breath: As the demand for oxygen-rich blood increases, the heart struggles to pump enough blood to meet the needs of the body. This may cause shortness of breath or extreme fatigue with exertion.
  • Heart attack: As the disease progresses it causes complete blockage of the coronary arteries with plaque. This results in a complete disruption of the blood flow to the heart muscles resulting in a heart attack. It can manifest as crushing pressure in the chest and pain in the shoulder or arm, sometimes with shortness of breath and sweating. This needs immediate medical attention. In some cases, a heart attack may occur without any apparent signs or symptoms.

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3.Possible causes and risk factors that lead to Blocked arteries

Causes

The most common cause of coronary artery disease is vascular injury to the inner layer of coronary artery with the buildup of plaque. The injury may be caused by various factors including:

  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Diabetes or insulin resistance
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking

Over the years, plaque made of cholesterol and other cellular waste products tend to accumulate at the site of injury through a process called as atherosclerosis. In some instances, the surface of the plaque ruptures and as a defense mechanism, blood cells clump at the site to repair the artery. The clump gets dislodged in some instances and can clog narrow arteries leading to a heart attack.

Risk factors

Some of the risk factors for blocked arteries are as follows:

  • Family history: The risk of coronary artery disease is higher in members with a family history of the condition. The risk is higher in individuals with father or brother diagnosed with heart disease before 55 years or if the mother or sister developed the condition before 65 years of age.
  • Age: The risk of damaged or narrowed arteries increases with age.
  • Sex: Compared to women, men are generally at increased risk of the condition. The risk of coronary artery disease increases in women after menopause.
  • Smoking: Smokers have a significantly higher risk of heart disease.
  • Blood Pressure: In patients with uncontrolled blood pressure the arteries harden and thicken ultimately becoming narrow. High blood pressure increases the risk of coronary artery disease.
  • Cholesterol levels: Increased cholesterol levels in the blood increases the risk of plaque formation and atherosclerosis. High levels of LDL Cholesterol (Low Density Lipoprotein), also known as bad cholesterol or low levels of HDL Cholesterol (High Density Lipoprotein) also known as good cholesterol, results in the development of atherosclerosis.
  • Diabetes: Diabetes or uncontrolled blood sugar levels increases the risk of coronary artery disease. It is very common in Indian population.
  • Overweight or obesity: Excess weight worsens other risk factors thereby increasing the risk of coronary artery disease.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: Physical inactivity is associated with coronary artery disease.
  • Stress: Stress damages arteries and worsen other risk factors of coronary artery disease.
  • Diet: Unhealthy diet, or diets rich in saturated fat, trans fat, salt and sugar can increase the risk of coronary artery disease.

Apart from these classic risk factors, coronary artery disease can also be caused by other factors including:

  • Sleep apnea: Breathing disorders during sleep resulting in strain on the cardiovascular system.
  • High sensitivity C-reactive protein: A protein that is an indicator of inflammation in the body.
  • High triglycerides: A type of fat (lipid) observed in the blood stream. Increased levels of TG raise the risk of coronary artery disease.
  • Homocysteine: This is an amino acid observed in the body that is important of tissue build up. High levels of homocysteine increases the risk of coronary artery disease.
  • Preeclampsia: It can develop in women during pregnancy and can cause high blood pressure and higher amount of protein in urine. This condition can lead to coronary artery disease in the latter part of women’s life.
  • Alcohol abuse: Heavy alcohol consumption worsen other risk factors of coronary artery disease.
  • Autoimmune diseases: This is a condition where the body’s own defense mechanism is affected. Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus increases the risk of atherosclerosis.

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4.How should I screen or Diagnose Blocked Heart arteries?

Regular health checkups will help to identify the condition early. Doctor will ask several questions related to your medical history and your family history. The risk of coronary artery disease increases if any of the family members or relatives had heart disease earlier.

This is followed by a thorough physical exam. Blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels are an important indicator for coronary artery disease. Your doctor may request for a routine blood test to identify any abnormalities that guide the diagnosis. Apart from these routine tests, your doctor may suggest one or more of the following tests to confirm a heart disease:

  • Your doctor might recommend a simple chest X ray along with some additional tests
  • Electrocardiogram also called ECG, records electrical signals as they travel through the heart. The readings are printed on an electrocardiogram strip and can often reveal any previous heart attacks or an attack that is in progress.
  • Holter monitoring is a type of ECG where the individual wears a portable monitor for 24 hours while going through regular activities. The devise captures any abnormalities and can also suggest inadequate blood flow to the heart.
  • Echocardiogram is another promising test that provides information about the health status of the heart. The test uses ultrasound waves to create an image of the heart. The results reveal the status of heart walls and whether they are contributing effectively to support heart’s pumping activity.
  • Your doctor may recommend a stress test if you are having any signs of the disease during exercise or physical activity. You will be asked to walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike while you are being monitored with an ECG. This procedure is called an exercise stress test. Your doctor may use medication to stimulate your heart in some cases instead of exercise.
  • In some cases your doctor my conduct stress tests using an echocardiogram. In this procedure, you will be monitored with ultrasound before and after you exercise on a treadmill or bike. Alternatively the doctor may use medication to stimulate the heart during an echocardiogram.
  • MRI is an important diagnostic tool in medicine. Your doctor may use medications to stimulate the heart while conducting an MRI.
  • Nuclear stress test is a procedure to evaluate blood flow to the heart muscle in resting stage and during stress. Your doctor will inject a tracer into the bloodstream and the device will monitor areas in the heart that receive less blood flow.
  • Heart Angiogram is the most promising test to identify blocked arteries. In an angiogram for heart, your doctor will inject a special dye into the coronary arteries through a long, thin, flexible tube called a catheter. It is threaded through an artery, usually in the leg to the arteries in the heart. The dye outlines narrow spots and artery blockages.
  • Calcium deposits are known to narrow the arteries. Your doctor may recommend a CT scan to evaluate calcium deposits as substantial amount of calcium in the arteries can establish coronary artery disease.
  • A CT coronary angiogram is recommended in some cases where a contrast dye is injected intravenously during a CT scan and the images are evaluated for coronary artery disease.

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5.Complications that might arise due to blocked arteries

Coronary Artery disease stages
  • In this condition, the coronary arteries narrow down thereby preventing blood flow to the heart. It can cause chest pain (angina) or shortness of breath.
  • The cholesterol plaque that forms at the region of the vascular injury ruptures and the blood clot travels through the arteries and gets blocked in narrow passages. A complete blockage of the arteries may trigger a heart attack and can be fatal if medical help is not provided immediately. Lack of blood flow to the heart muscles damages them and there is a window of opportunity to limit the damage and all efforts should be taken to provide treatment on time.
  • Heart failure may happen in some cases where the heart becomes too weak to pump enough blood to meet the needs of the body. Reduced blood flow due to blocked artery deprives some areas of the heart of necessary oxygen and nutrients and makes the heart weaker.
  • Inadequate blood supply due to the blocked arteries or damage to heart tissue can interfere with the heart's electrical impulses. This can cause abnormal heart rhythms also called arrhythmia.

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6.Prevention of Coronary Artery disease

Coronary Artery Disease is a progressive disease and once diagnosed can be managed through treatment. It can also be prevented from developing by leading a healthy lifestyle and keeping the arteries free of plaque.

Here are some measures that can be followed to prevent coronary artery disease:

  • Smoking is a key risk factor that promotes vascular injury. Quitting smoking can help in preventing the condition.
  • Other risk factors that need attention are high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Managing these conditions can help in preventing coronary artery disease
  • Sedentary lifestyle prompts coronary artery disease. Being active every day, ideally for 30 minutes or more per day can be very helpful
  • Foods that are low in trans fats, saturated fats, simple sugars and sodium can be helpful.
  • Maintain optimal body weight
  • Learn effective ways to manage stress

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7.Treatment and Surgery

Once coronary artery disease is diagnosed, patients have several options to manage or treat it. Your doctor might recommend lifestyle changes along with treatment with drugs. In some cases, your doctor might suggest a surgical procedure based on the seriousness of the condition.

Lifestyle changes

Your doctor might recommend the following lifestyle measures to maintain healthy arteries or manage blood cholesterol levels.

  • Quit smoking: Smoking is a major risk factor for CAD. The blood vessels are constricted with nicotine forcing the heart to work harder. On the other hand, carbon monoxide reduces oxygen in the blood and damages the lining of blood vessels. Vascular injury is the main reason for plaque formation. Quitting smoking can help in maintaining healthy arteries.
  • Manage blood pressure: Blood pressure should be checked regularly, especially in those who have blood pressure higher than normal or have a history of heart disease. Follow the doctor's advice in managing blood pressure with drugs and diet.
  • Manage cholesterol: You have to manage blood cholesterol levels regularly to keep a check. It includes observing the levels of LDL, HDL and TG. Know more about the good cholesterol and bad cholesterol and the foods that help in managing them.
  • Manage blood sugar levels: In patients who are diabetic, tight blood sugar management can help manage coronary artery disease.
  • Following a healthy diet: Eat healthy food that includes plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts and also food which is low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. This can help you control your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol. Avoid saturated fat and trans fat, excess salt, and excess sugar.
  • Exercise regularly: Keeping active with exercise can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight and control diabetes, elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure. These are all risk factors for coronary artery disease.
  • anage body weight: The risk of coronary artery disease increases with weight. Losing even a small percentage of weight can help in dramatically reducing risk factors of coronary artery disease.
  • Manage stress: Practice techniques to manage stress.

Drugs

If lifestyle changes are not adequate, or for better results, your doctor might recommend medication to keep the heart healthier. It is important to follow the dose and take the medication regularly.

  • Medication to manage blood cholesterol: Blood cholesterol is the main reason behind the plaque formation that clogs the arteries. Your doctor may recommend drugs to manage bad cholesterol (LDL) or improve the good cholesterol (HDL). He may also recommend medication to manage triglycerides (TGs). Your doctor may choose from a range of cholesterol lowering medication including statins, niacin, fibrates and bile acid sequestrants.
  • Aspirin: Aspirin or agents called blood thinners can reduce the tendency of blood to clot. Blood clots can block arteries and hence taking aspirin or blood thinners daily can help in preventing the formation of clots. Aspirin can also prevent future heart attacks however in some cases it may be inappropriate such as in patients having bleeding disorder. You have to inform your doctor in advance if you have any bleeding disorder.
  • Beta blockers: These medications slow the heart rate and decrease blood pressure, which decreases the heart's demand for oxygen. Beta blockers reduce the risk of future attacks in patients who had attacks earlier.
  • Calcium channel blockers: In cases where beta blockers are not effective or if the patient is unable to take beta blockers the doctor might recommend calcium channel blockers. This medication can help in improving the symptoms of chest pain (angina).
  • Ranolazine: Your doctor may prescribe this drug along with a beta blocker or instead of a beta blocker if you cannot take it. It helps in managing chest pain (angina).
  • Nitroglycerin: Nitroglycerin is available as tablets, sprays and patches and can help in controlling the chest pain. It temporarily dilates coronary arteries and reduce the heart’s demand for blood.
  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs): These drugs decrease blood pressure and may help prevent progression of coronary artery disease.

Surgical procedures

Sometimes more aggressive procedures are needed to restore and improve blood flow, these include.

  • Angioplasty and stent placement (percutaneous coronary revascularization): In this procedure a long, thin tube called a catheter is inserted into the narrowed part of the blocked artery. The surgeon will insert a wire with a deflated balloon through the catheter to the narrowed area of the blocked artery. Once in place, the balloon is then inflated resulting in the compression of the plaque deposits against the artery wall. The heart artery surgery might often leave the stent in the artery to keep it open. Some stents will have the ability to release medication to keep the arteries open.
  • Coronary artery bypass grafting: In this procedure a surgeon creates a graft to bypass blocked coronary arteries using a vessel from another part of the body. After the procedure the blood flows around the blocked or narrowed coronary artery. This surgery is done through open heart procedure and is often reserved for cases of multiple narrowed coronary arteries. You will be advised to stay in the hospital for at least 5 days.

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8.Road to Recovery and Aftercare

Coronary artery disease can be managed with lifestyle changes and medication. Early diagnosis can be very helpful in taking some measures to keep blood cholesterol in check or manage other risk factors. The approach is to prevent extensive damage to the heart and prevent heart attack.

In cases where a surgery is performed to remove the arterial block or bypass the heart block it is important to follow the doctor's instructions. Medication should be taken regularly and lifestyle changes to be followed promptly. Heart attack can happen again in some cases and hence proper measures to be taken to prevent the 2nd heart attack. In these cases appropriate measures to be taken to get urgent medical attention.

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9.Coronary Artery Disease FAQs: All your concerns addressed

Q.  What are the possible causes for my signs and symptoms?

  1. The main reason for your signs and symptoms could be due to a heart problem. Your doctor can make a diagnosis based on your family history, physical examination and blood tests. He may also recommend some additional tests like ECG, Echocardiogram or Heart Angiogram. Identifying the condition early can help in managing the condition appropriately.

Q.   Do I need any tests?

  1. Your doctor might request for blood tests initially to evaluate the blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels. He might be also evaluating other markers to check for any inflammation. Based on the physical examination and blood tests, your doctor might recommend additional tests like electrocardiogram, echocardiogram or angiogram for heart to evaluate if the arteries are blocked and understand the health status of the heart.

Q.   Should I see a specialist?

  1. Based on the seriousness of the condition your doctor might recommend a specialist. In early stages the condition can be managed with medication. However in serious cases with a blocked artery or multiple blocked arteries, your doctor might recommend a specialist to guide further treatment.

Q.   Should I follow any restrictions while I wait for my next appointment?

  1. Your doctor might recommend certain lifestyle changes and diet improvements to keep the cholesterol in control and avoid any further vascular injury.

Q.   What emergency signs and symptoms should prompt a call to emergency medical help?

  1. Your doctor can explain to you about signs and symptoms that are indicative of a heart attack. Since immediate medical treatment is important in these cases, you need to understand the symptoms that are suggestive of a heart attack. Seek medical help if you have any of the following symptoms:
  • Chest pain
  • Discomfort in any part of the upper body
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting with lightheadedness, dizziness, or cold sweat

Q.   I am getting a coronary bypass graft procedure. Will it impact my work after the surgery?

  1. This is an open heart surgery and your doctor will inform you about the procedure in detail. In many cases patients can join the work after a few weeks. However your doctor will discuss post-operative measures while understanding your work requirements.

Q.   What should I do to prepare for a doctor’s appointment?

  1. Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. Speak to your doctor in advance.
  • Write down any symptoms you're experiencing prior to the meeting.
  • Write down your key medical information including any details like family history of heart disease.
  • Find a family member or friend who can join you for the meeting.
  • Write down questions to ask your doctor. It is important to know about the disease, lifestyle measures, treatment and post-operative care.

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