Arterial blockage is almost always caused by atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits (cholesterol and triglycerides) in the walls of arteries. When the blockage occurs in a coronary artery, it is known as coronary artery disease or CAD.
Symptoms of arterial blockage in the heart are not noted until the disease reaches an advanced stage. The supply of blood (oxygen and nutrients) flowing to the heart becomes restricted and can cause angina (chest pain) or a heart attack.
Non-modifiable risk factors include:
- Gender. Males are at a greater risk than women. It is equal in both genders after the age of 70.
- Age. It is more likely to occur after the age of 65.
- Family history of heart disease, especially if the family member was diagnosed before the age of 50.
- Race. African Americans are more at risk for arterial blockage than Caucasians.
Modifiable risk factors include:
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Inactive lifestyle
- Overweight and obesity
- Uncontrolled anger or stress
- High blood pressure
- High blood levels of “bad” cholesterol
- High blood levels of triglycerides
- Uncontrolled diabetes
Symptoms of angina and heart attack are similar. The primary symptom is chest pain:
- The pain is normally felt deep in the chest behind the middle or upper third part of the sternum (the person may make a fist over the site of pain).
- The pain usually radiates to the neck, jaw, shoulders, and arms (more often on the left side than on the right side).
- The pain can be mild to severe.
- The pain can be described as aching, pressure, squeezing, heaviness, tightness, fullness, or burning. Some may mistake the pain as being heartburn.
- Severe pain is normally accompanied by apprehension and a feeling of impending death.
Other symptoms of arterial blockage in the heart include lightheadedness, dizziness, extreme weakness, numbness in the arms, wrists, or hands, sweating, nausea, fast heart rate, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath.
The Difference between Angina and Heart Attack
Angina happens when there is a brief period of insufficient blood supply to the heart (normally occurs during physical exertion, excitement, stress, eating a heavy meal, or exposure to cold). Symptoms go away with rest and/or medications after a few minutes (normally less than three minutes). Angina does not cause permanent heart damage and is not considered an emergency situation (although you should consult with your health care provider).
A heart attack (also known as myocardial infarction) occurs when the blood supply is completely blocked off to a part of the heart or when the need for oxygen becomes much greater than what the blood can supply. Symptoms do not go away with rest or oral medications and permanent damage to the heart will occur. Heart attacks require immediate medical attention. Quick treatment can reduce the amount of damage.
The Lippincott Manual of Nursing Practice, Fourth Edition (1986)
Cleveland Clinic: Coronary Artery Disease - Overview - https://my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/disorders/cad/understandingcad.aspx
Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine (NLM)