Heart disease caused by plaque buildup in artery walls

Heart disease, often referred to as coronary artery disease (CAD) or coronary heart disease (CHD), involves buildup of plaque, a wax-like substance, in the walls of the arteries. The arteries are blood vessels that help pump oxygen-rich blood away from the heart and throughout the body. When plaque builds up, it causes “narrowing” of the arteries, making it difficult for blood to flow freely. Plaque can also cause “hardening” of the arteries, which refers to hardened plaque along the arterial walls. Hardened plaque can break off and also cause blockage of blood flow. If plaque ruptures, the ruptured area can form a blood clot, which can potentially break loose and cause a blockage. If any of these things happen, it can lead to heart attack, heart failure, or arrhythmia. If a blood vessel to the brain is blocked, it can cause stroke.

Plaque buildup and thickening or hardening of the arteries takes many years to develop. People most at risk are people with high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and low HDL (“good”) cholesterol as well as people with high blood pressure and diabetes. Women who had high-risk pregnancies or who are postmenopausal are also at greater risk for heart disease.

What are the symptoms of heart disease?

As the condition worsens, you may experience symptoms of angina or chest pain, such as:

  • Aching in the chest
  • Burning sensation in the chest
  • A heavy feeling in the chest
  • Numbness
  • Squeezing in the chest

Some people feel sensations in other parts of the body like the shoulder, neck or back. Women often have unique symptoms of nausea, fatigue, or shortness of breath.

How is heart disease diagnosed?

If you’re having symptoms that concern you or you may be at higher risk for heart disease, be sure to talk with your doctor. Your doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical exam, and may order additional testing, such as:

If you are diagnosed with heart disease, your doctor will discuss treatment options for you. Treatment is commonly a combination of diet and lifestyle changes along with medications, and in some cases, surgery.

To schedule an appointment with a Lankenau Heart Institute specialist, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.