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Patient education: Coronary heart disease (The Basics)
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Patient education: Coronary heart disease (The Basics)
Written by the doctors and editors at UpToDate
All topics are updated as new evidence becomes available and our peer review process is complete.
Literature review current through: Aug 2017. | This topic last updated: Jul 06, 2015.

What is coronary heart disease? — Coronary heart disease is a condition that puts you at risk for heart attack and other forms of heart disease. In people who have coronary heart disease, the arteries that supply blood to the heart get clogged with fatty deposits (figure 1). Other names for this disease are "coronary artery disease" or just "heart disease."

What are the symptoms of coronary heart disease? — Many people with coronary heart disease have no symptoms. In fact, the first symptom of the disease can be a heart attack (figure 2). That's why it is so important to know how to spot a heart attack.

The symptoms of a heart attack can include:

Pain, pressure, or discomfort in the center of the chest

Pain, tingling, or discomfort in other parts of the upper body, including the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach

Shortness of breath

Nausea, vomiting, burping, or heartburn

Sweating or having cold, clammy skin

A racing or uneven heartbeat

Feeling dizzy or lightheaded

If these symptoms last more than 10 minutes or they keep coming and going, call for an ambulance (in the US and Canada, dial 9-1-1) right away. Do not try to get to the hospital on your own.

Some people with coronary heart disease have chest pain even when they are not having a heart attack. This is most likely to happen when they are walking, going up stairs, or moving around. But if you have chest pain that is new or different than pain you have had before, you should see a doctor right away.

Is there a test for coronary heart disease? — Yes. If your doctor or nurse thinks you might have coronary heart disease, he or she might order blood tests and one or more of these tests:

An electrocardiogram ("ECG" or "EKG") – This test measures the electrical activity in your heart.

A stress test – During a stress test, you might be asked to run or walk on a treadmill while you also have an ECG. Physical activity increases the heart's need for blood. This test helps doctors see if the heart is getting enough blood. If you cannot walk or run, your doctor might do this test by giving you a medicine to make your heart pump faster.

An echocardiogram – This test uses sound waves to create an image of your heart as it beats.

Cardiac catheterization (also called "cardiac cath") – During this test, the doctor puts a thin tube into a blood vessel in your leg or arm. Then he or she moves the tube up to your heart. Next, the doctor puts a dye that shows up on X-ray into the tube. This part of the test is called "coronary angiography." It can show whether any of the arteries in your heart are clogged.

How is coronary heart disease treated? — The main treatments for coronary heart disease are:

Lifestyle changes – Here are some things you can do to reduce your risk of heart attack and death:

Quit smoking, if you smoke.

Eat lots of fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products, but not a lot of meat or fatty foods.

Walk or do some form of physically activity on most days of the week.

Lose weight, if you are overweight.

Medicines – The medicines to treat heart disease are very important. Some medicines lower your risk of heart attacks and can help you live longer. But you must take them every day, as directed. Medicines your doctor might prescribe include:

Medicines called statins, which lower cholesterol

Medicines to lower blood pressure

Aspirin or other medicines that help prevent blood clots

Medicines to treat diabetes

People who have chest pain caused by coronary heart disease (called "angina") can also get medicines to relive their pain. These medicines might include "nitrates," "beta blockers," and others.

Some people with coronary heart disease can also have:

A stent procedure – During this procedure, the doctor puts a thin plastic tube with a balloon at the end of it into the blocked artery, and uses a tiny balloon to open the blockage. Then the doctor leaves a tiny mesh tube called a "stent" inside the artery to hold it open.

Bypass surgery (also known as "coronary artery bypass grafting" or CABG) – During bypass surgery, the doctor removes a piece of blood vessel from another part of the body. Then he or she reattaches the blood vessel above and below the area that is clogged. This re-routes blood around the clog, and allows it to get to the part of the heart that was not getting blood (figure 3).

If your doctor recommends stenting or bypass surgery, ask these questions:

What are the benefits of this procedure for me? Will the procedure help me live longer? Will it reduce my chance of having a heart attack? Will I feel better if I have this procedure?

What are the risks of the procedure?

What happens if I don't have this procedure?

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Patient education: High cholesterol and lipids (hyperlipidemia) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Heart attack (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Aspirin in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Chest pain (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Medications for angina (Beyond the Basics)
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Patient education: Stenting for the heart (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Coronary artery bypass graft surgery (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Recovery after coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG) (Beyond the Basics)

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