As plaque builds up, your arteries become narrowed. At first you may not even be aware of this silent process, but eventually clogged arteries will no longer be able to supply enough blood to your heart, especially during physical activity or emotional stress. When that happens, you may feel symptoms of coronary artery disease, including:
Chest pain. Also known as angina, chest pain strikes when the heart is not getting enough blood. You may feel pressure, tightness or a squeezing pain in your chest. You may also feel pain in your jaw, neck, shoulders, arms or back. Women are more likely than men to feel the pain in the arms or back or simply be short of breath. Usually, angina occurs during physical activity or stress, and goes away with rest.
Shortness of breath. Feeling short of breath is another common symptom of coronary artery disease. It occurs when the heart isn't able to pump enough oxygen-rich blood to meet the body's needs. In addition, if you have heart failure as the result of an injured or weakened heart muscle, fluid may back up in the lungs, which will also make it hard to breathe.
Heart attack. During a heart attack, a heart artery becomes completely blocked, and blood cannot get to a portion of the heart. The heart muscle suffers damage and begins to die. The medical term for a heart attack is myocardial infarction, or MI.
A heart attack can be the result of severe plaque build-up. However, in about half of cases, a heart attack is the first sign that a person has coronary artery disease. In such cases, it's likely that the heart attack occurred when a moderate-sized plaque suddenly ruptured, causing a blood clot to form and block the artery.
A heart attack often causes crushing pressure and pain in the chest, but it's possible to have a heart attack without experiencing such obvious symptoms, particularly for women. You may experience a feeling of fullness in the chest, or pain in the arms, shoulder, jaw or back. The pain may be mild or severe, and can even feel like indigestion. Other symptoms include sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness and fatigue.
Learn from Other Patients’ Stories
Kathy had what she calls “episodes”—relatively minor symptoms that came and went. A non-smoker who took care of herself, Kathy was doubtful when her doctor recommended testing her heart, especially when the results turned out to be mixed. Concerned about the results and the nagging symptoms, Kathy underwent cardiac catheterization, which revealed one of her main heart arteries was 95 percent blocked. Read her story to find out what happened next.