Common symptoms of coronary artery disease (CAD) include:
- Chest pain, also called angina
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
Symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath are caused by reduced blood flow and oxygen to the heart due to a buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries. However, many people with CAD don’t know they have it until they experience an unexpected event like a heart attack or stroke.
A heart attack occurs when a blood clot forms around a ruptured plaque and cuts off blood flow and oxygen to the heart. If the clot breaks off and travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke. Both of these events can be life threatening.
How is CAD diagnosed?
In addition to talking with you about any symptoms you may be experiencing, your medical history and risk factors, and performing a physical exam, your healthcare professional may use one or more of the following tests to confirm whether or not you have CAD:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) to measure the electrical activity, rate, and regularity of your heartbeat
- Echocardiogram to create an image of the heart using ultrasound
- Stress test to measure your heart function when it has to work harder
- X-ray to create a picture of the heart, lungs, and arteries
- Cardiac catheterization to measure blood pressure and strength of blood flow in the arteries by inserting a thin, flexible tube through an artery in the groin, arm, or neck to reach the heart
- Coronary angiogram to find blockages by injecting dye into the coronary arteries through cardiac catheterization (above)
- Blood tests
What to know about having a heart attack or stroke
Heart attack symptoms may include any or all of the following:
- Discomfort in the center of the chest, including pressure, fullness, or squeezing pain
- Discomfort or pain that spreads from the chest to the shoulders, back, neck, jaw, teeth, arms, or upper abdomen
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or fainting
- Nausea or indigestion
It’s common for a heart attack to cause chest pain for 15 minutes or longer. Warning signs may also occur hours, days, or even weeks before having a heart attack. However, a heart attack can also have no symptoms.
If you think you may be having a heart attack:
- Call 911 immediately
- Don’t ignore your symptoms or try to push through them
- Crush or chew and swallow a regular strength aspirin (unless your healthcare professional told you never to take aspirin, or you are allergic)
- If you have been prescribed nitroglycerin, take it as directed. Never take anyone else’s nitroglycerin
Signs of a stroke: Remember the FAST acronym
Know when to call for help by remembering this acronym:
Time to call 911
Other stroke symptoms come on suddenly and without warning:
- Numbness, especially on one side of the body
- Confusion or difficulty understanding
- Difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
- Difficulty walking, dizziness, or loss of balance
- An unexplained, severe headache
If you experience any of these stroke symptoms, call 911 immediately if you are able, or signal to someone else to call for you. Acting quickly is essential during a stroke—the quicker you can get medical help, the lower your risk for serious disability or fatality.