Coronary Artery Disease
As arterial plaque builds up, your arteries become narrowed. At first, you may not even be aware of this silent process. Still, 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 (CAD), including the following:
- 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 the jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, or back. Women* are more likely than men to feel pain in the arms or back or simply be short of breath. Typically, angina occurs during physical activity or stress and goes away with rest.
- Shortness of breath – Feeling short of breath is another common symptom of CAD. It occurs when the heart cannot pump enough oxygen-rich blood to meet the body's needs. In addition, if you have heart failure due to an injured or weakened heart muscle, fluid may back up in the lungs, making it hard for you to breathe.
- Heart attack – During a heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction (MI), a heart artery becomes completely blocked, and blood can’t reach a portion of the heart. As a result, the heart muscle suffers damage and begins to die. A heart attack can result from severe plaque buildup; however, in about half of the cases, a heart attack is the first sign that a person has CAD. In such cases, the heart attack likely occurred when a moderate-sized plaque suddenly ruptured, causing a blood clot to form and block the artery.
Women's Cardiovascular Health
A heart attack often causes crushing pressure and pain in the chest, but it's possible to have a heart attack without experiencing such apparent 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. If you think that you or someone you’re with may be having a heart attack, don’t delay—seek out medical help immediately!
*The term “women” in the context of “women’s cardiovascular health” applies to individuals assigned female at birth (AFAB) who have a female biological reproductive system, which includes a vagina, uterus, ovaries, Fallopian tubes, accessory glands, and external genital organs.
*The term “men” in the context of “cardiovascular health” applies to individuals assigned male at birth (AMAB) who have a male biological reproductive system, which includes a penis, scrotum, testes, epididymis, vas deferens, prostate, and seminal vesicles.