Coronary artery disease (CAD), also known as coronary heart disease (CHD), occurs when the blood vessels — the coronary arteries — that bring oxygen and nutrients to the heart muscle become narrowed and blocked. CAD is the most common heart disease in the U.S. and the leading cause of death for men and women alike.
The most common sign or symptom of heart disease (coronary artery disease) is angina pectoris, often referred to as chest pain. It can be described as chest pain, discomfort, heaviness, tightness, pressure, aching, burning, numbness, fullness, or squeezing in the chest area.
Other symptoms can include:
- Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body including the arms, shoulders, upper back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
- Sweating or breaking out in a "cold sweat."
- Fullness, indigestion, or choking feeling (may feel like heartburn).
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Light-headedness, dizziness, or flu-like symptoms.
- Rapid or irregular heart beats.
- Extreme fatigue or weakness, especially with exertion.
If you have chest discomfort or any of the above symptoms that last for more than five minutes, call 911 immediately and seek medical attention. These symptoms could be the sign of a heart attack, also called myocardial infarction, and immediate treatment is essential.
Symptoms of Coronary Artery Disease in Women
The symptoms of coronary artery disease and heart attack can be different for women than for men. Women are also less likely to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and seek treatment. The most common symptoms of heart disease in women are:
- Pain or pressure over the chest that travels to the arm or jaw.
- A burning sensation in the chest or upper abdomen.
- Shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, sweating, fatigue and nausea.
On average, symptoms of heart disease appear 10 years later in women than men. In addition, women often report their symptoms before having a heart attack, although the symptoms are not typical "heart" symptoms. In a multi-center study of 515 women who had an acute myocardial infarction, the most frequently reported symptoms were unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances, shortness of breath, indigestion and anxiety. The majority of women (78 percent) reported at least one symptom for more than one month before their heart attack. Only 30 percent reported chest discomfort, which was described as an aching, tightness, pressure, sharpness, burning, fullness or tingling.
Diagnosing Coronary Artery Disease
Diagnosis starts with a complete medical history and physical examination. It also may include any of these procedures:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): A test that records the electrical activity of the heart, shows abnormal rhythms, and detects heart muscle damage.
- Stress test (usually with ECG; also called treadmill or exercise ECG): You walk on a treadmill to monitor the heart, breathing and blood pressure rates during exercise. A stress test may be used not only to detect coronary artery disease, but also to determine safe levels of exercise following a heart attack or heart surgery.