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Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary Artery Disease - What it is

Coronary artery disease (CAD), also known as ischaemic heart disease, occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle (the coronary arteries) become hardened and narrowed. The arteries harden and narrow due to build-up of fatty deposits called plaque on their inner walls. The hardening of the artery walls is known as arteriosclerosis, while the build-up of plaque is known as atherosclerosis.

illustration coronary artery narrowing

As the plaque increases in size, the insides of the coronary arteries get narrower and less blood can flow through them. Eventually, blood flow to the heart muscle is reduced and can cause chest pain (angina). A sudden, complete blockage can lead to a heart attack.

Many people with this disease are not aware they have it, as it develops slowly and silently over decades. It can go virtually unnoticed until it produces a heart attack.

What is Coronary Artery Disease? (Video)


Coronary Artery Disease - Symptoms

Coronary artery disease varies in signs, symptoms and in severity. You may have no symptoms, otherwise referred to as silent ischaemia, where you do not have any symptoms although blood supply to your heart may be restricted.

You may also experience the following symptoms when you have coronary artery disease:

  • Shortness of breath or breathlessness on exertion or when lying down: Occurs when the heart fails due to damage of heart muscles
  • Decreased effort tolerance
  • Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or back
  • Chest pain (angina) on exertion with or without radiation to the left arm: Usually brought about by physical or emotional stress. It feels like a heavy weight on your chest.
  • Severe chest discomfort lasting more than 10 to 20 minutes, which may be due to a heart attack.
  • Heart attack: Caused by a blood clot or rupture in a narrowed coronary artery. The part of the heart muscle fed by that artery dies. Pain from a heart attack is often described as a crushing pain and may feel similar to angina, but lasts longer.

Should you have severe chest discomfort, call an ambulance to bring you to the nearest hospital.

Coronary Artery Disease - How to prevent?

You can prevent or slow down coronary artery disease by improving the health of your heart and blood vessels. Here are some heart healthy activities:

  • Exercise at least 150 minutes a week, with moderate intensity exercise
  • Get six to eight hours of sleep daily
  • Take two servings of fruits and three servings of vegetables daily
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index). The healthy range for Asians is from 18.5 to 22.9 kg/m2.
  • Stop or not start on smoking

For more information on heart health activities and nutrition guide, visit our 'Guide for Patients with Coronary Atherosclerosis' here.

Coronary Artery Disease - Causes and Risk Factors


Coronary artery disease is caused by atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries due to old age. In atherosclerosis, plaque build-up in the arteries is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances from the blood.

Plaque build-up in the arteries often begins in childhood. Over time, plaque build-up in the coronary arteries can:

  • Narrow the arteries, reducing the amount of blood and oxygen reaching the heart muscles
  • Block the arteries completely which stops the flow of blood to the heart muscle
  • Cause blood clots to form which can block the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle.

Risk Factors

The risk factors that can contribute to coronary artery disease include:

  • Diabetes mellitus
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle and a lack of physical activity
  • Smoking

Coronary Artery Disease - Diagnosis

Diagnosis normally starts with a physical examination by a doctor, assessing your medical history and further investigative tests. Investigative tests generally include:

Other specific routine tests recommended may include:

What strategies can I employ after being diagnosed with coronary artery disease?

  • Choose a sustainable diet and lifestyle.
  • It may be tempting to change your lifestyle wholeheartedly, but a sustainable, gradual approach to change works best in the long run.
  • Avoid excessive saturated fat and refined carbohydrate.
  • Consider reducing overall carbohydrate intake if you happen to be diabetic, and avoid any added sugars.
  • Take care to avoid processed foods where possible.
  • Reduce salt intake and increase your overall consumption of fiber (with a decreased amount coming from fruit if possible if again, you happen to be diabetic).
  • If you currently smoke, discuss therapies with your doctor, and establishing a target stop date is the most useful step in quitting smoking altogether.
  • Gradually increase your uptake of physical activity with advice from your doctor, and monitor your sugar levels/cholesterol levels and blood pressure regularly.
  • Consider signing up for cardiac rehabilitation if you’re considering a more supervised approach to returning to better health.
  • Take care to continue your medication regularly without missing doses, particularly your blood thinners if you’ve had a stent placed during your stay
The diagnosis of coronary artery disease should not limit your return to health, nor give you anxiety if well managed. Please reach out to your doctor if there are any further questions on your treatment plans.

Coronary Artery Disease - Treatments

It is recommended to first slow down coronary artery disease by improving the health of your heart and blood vessels, through lifestyle changes. Making lifestyle choices to control the risk factors for coronary artery disease is the best long-term measure.

Drugs and surgical techniques can open up narrowed coronary arteries. Optimal medical therapy such as aspirin (blood thinners), beta blockers (cardiac protective) and statins (cholesterol lowering medications) is given to all patients with coronary artery disease.

While many people are able to manage this disease with lifestyle changes and medications, others with severe coronary artery disease may need coronary angioplasty or surgery. There are various procedures to improve coronary blood flow (revascularisation):

  • Percutaneous Coronary Intervention (PCI): A common treatment for severe blockage of the coronary arteries, it is also known as coronary or balloon angioplasty / percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA) with coronary stent placement.

    stent heart illustration

    In PTCA, a small balloon or stent is used to help keep the part of the artery that is blocked open. The latest option within PTCA is the use of drug-eluting stents, which are stents covered with a drug, which supposedly has been shown to reduce the rate of re-narrowing of the arteries. If percutaneous coronary intervention does not widen the artery or if complications occur, you may need coronary artery bypass surgery.

  • Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery: This is an open heart surgery where a new route is created for blood to go around a blocked part of a coronary artery to supply your heart with enough blood to relieve chest pain.

Coronary Artery Disease - Preparing for surgery

Coronary Artery Disease - Post-surgery care

Coronary Artery Disease - Other Information

Related Health Articles

Do I need to be concerned about coronary artery disease?

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is a serious medical condition.

If you suspect you may have CAD, you may make an appointment with a cardiologist for further investigations and treatment.

To make an appointment at the National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS), please visit here:
Book an Appointment

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