Coronary Artery Disease: Risks and Symptoms

Shortness of breath could mean heart disease, so don't ignore it.
If your arteries start collecting plaque, your heart may have trouble getting enough blood. And if blood flow runs low, the heart complains—with pain. This is often one of the first symptoms of coronary artery disease (CAD).

You may notice a sharp pain in your chest, known as angina. The pain—often described as pressure, heaviness, tightness, squeezing, burning, or a dull ache—will likely last a few minutes before fading.

The pain is hard to pinpoint, although some people describe it by holding a fist to their chest. (Note: Burning chest pain following a meal is more likely to be acid reflux than angina. If an antacid eases the pain, it's heartburn.)

Unpredictable pain can mean heart attack
At first, you're only likely to notice angina when you're exercising. The pain should ease quickly as you rest.

But if plaque continues to build, your heart may start complaining any time of day in any situation. It may even wake you up in the middle of the night. Unpredictable or unstable angina is a powerful predictor of a heart attack.

When breathlessness is cause for concern
A heart that isn't getting enough blood is also not getting enough oxygen. For that reason, people with coronary artery disease may feel breathless and unusually tired. Of course, everyone gets breathless and tired sometimes.

But you should be concerned if you suddenly lack the strength or the breath to do something that usually comes easily, says cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the New York University Women's Heart Program. "If you ignore it, the symptoms could become even stronger," she says.

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Lead writer: Sharon Kay
Last Updated: May 16, 2008

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