Coronary Artery Disease


What Is Coronary Artery Disease?

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is a condition in which fatty deposits called plaque build up in the coronary arteries. These blood vessels supply your heart muscle with oxygen-rich blood, and the buildup can restrict or block the supply.

Sometimes, this condition is also called coronary heart disease (CHD) or ischemic heart disease.

Coronary artery disease can be difficult to detect and diagnose. Aurora Health Care offers the most advanced diagnostic methods and treatments, from leading heart experts. We’ll provide you with a range of care options, with many treatments available in your community so you can stay close to home.

Symptoms & Complications

Symptoms of Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease develops over years. You might not even suspect you have it until it causes symptoms like angina (chest pain), shortness of breath or even a heart attack.

If you think you’re having a heart attack, call 911.

Coronary artery disease can cause a range of symptoms. If you experience symptoms, but don’t think you’re having a heart attack, call your doctor. Symptoms can include:

  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Angina (pain, heaviness, tightness or pressure in your chest)
  • Extreme weakness or fatigue
  • Light-headedness or syncope (fainting)
  • Nausea
  • Pain in your arms, left shoulder, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained perspiration

Complications of Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease is a leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S. As the condition worsens, some people experience potentially serious complications:

  • Hardened arteries: Eventually, plaque that builds up in the arteries may harden. This hardening of the arteries is called atherosclerosis and can lead to a series of problems:
    • Atherosclerosis can narrow the arteries.
    • Narrowed arteries may increase blood pressure or make it easier for blood clots to block an artery.
    • If an artery is blocked, you could experience a heart attack or stroke.
  • Weakened heart muscle: As coronary artery disease progresses, the heart muscle may become weaker. This condition can lead to complications such as:
    • Heart failure: When the heart doesn’t pump the way it should, this condition is called heart failure.
    • Arrhythmia: An irregular, fast or slow heartbeat is called arrhythmia.

Risk Factors

What Causes Coronary Artery Disease?

Fortunately, you can control many of the risk factors for coronary artery disease. Taking charge of your lifestyle can delay or reduce the risk of coronary artery disease, and your doctor can help.

People are more likely to develop coronary artery disease if they:

  • Are overweight or inactive
  • Smoke or use other forms of tobacco
  • Have high blood pressure or unhealthy cholesterol levels
  • Have a family history of coronary artery disease
  • Have diabetes or insulin resistance, or conditions that may inflame the arteries
  • Eat an unhealthy diet that is high in trans fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar and cholesterol
  • Abuse drugs or alcohol
  • Have untreated sleep apnea, with breathing that pauses during sleep


Expert Diagnosis of Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease develops over time. This means it can develop without your even knowing, until it causes symptoms. That’s why it’s important to seek care from cardiovascular experts with the knowledge and technology to provide an accurate diagnosis.

Learn more about heart and vascular diagnosis and testing at Aurora.

Heart Tests

If we suspect coronary artery disease, we’ll ask about your symptoms and perform a physical exam. We also may use other tools, such as:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG): A 12-lead electrocardiogram is our standard for EKGs. During this procedure, you recline on a table, with 12 electrodes attached to your body. The test lasts about 10 minutes, and it helps doctors measure your heart’s activity.
  • Echocardiogram: An echo test (also called heart ultrasound) produces pictures of your heart’s size and motion.
  • Stress test: Sometimes, people are tested while they exercise so doctors can see how their heart functions when it works hard. A stress test also can be done with medication, for people who are unable to exercise.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests can check oxygen levels and organ function.
  • Heart catheterization: Heart catheterization can help us understand what stage coronary artery disease has reached. We may use this test with other tools to help us provide an accurate diagnosis. These tools may include optimal coherence tomography (OCT), which uses light to provide an image of the artery. We also might use fractional flow reserve (FFR), which measures the pressure inside a narrowed artery.

Imaging Tests

Doctors use a variety of imaging methods to get a picture of your blood vessels and organs, so they can choose the right treatment for you. Options include:

  • Cardiac CT: A computed tomography (CT) scan of your heart creates 3-D images that show calcium deposits that cause blockages.
  • Chest X-ray: We may take a chest X-ray to examine the internal structures of your chest.
  • Computed tomography angiography (CTA): Angiography uses dye to show the inside of your arteries. A computed tomography (CT) scan generates images of the heart, brain and other areas to see if blood vessels have hardened or have buildup.
  • Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA): MRA is similar to CTA but uses magnetic fields to make images of organs and blood vessels.
  • Electron beam CT scan (EBCT): This test, sometimes called Ultrafast CT, uses an electron gun to check for calcium buildup in the heart’s blood vessels.
  • Intravascular ultrasound: Doctors can study the walls of the artery in a cross-sectional view from within the blood vessel. With this highly advanced tool, we can determine plaque’s location in the artery, which helps us to plan the right treatment.
  • Nuclear imaging: Nuclear cardiology imaging gives doctors a picture of how well your heart is functioning, without invasive tests.


Personalized Care for Coronary Artery Disease

If you’re diagnosed with coronary artery disease, we’ll recommend treatments that will help improve blood flow to your heart. We may talk with you about several treatment options, such as dissolving blood clots, working to reduce the buildup of plaque or preventing a heart attack.

Your personalized treatment plan might include one or more of the following approaches.

Lifestyle Changes

You may improve the health of your coronary arteries with changes, such as:

  • Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains
  • Getting more exercise and/or losing weight
  • Getting your diabetes under control
  • Lowering your blood pressure and/or cholesterol
  • Quitting smoking


Your doctor might prescribe:

  • Aspirin to reduce blood clots
  • Beta blockers to improve blood flow
  • Cholesterol-lowering medications


We may recommend procedures to improve blood flow in your coronary arteries, such as:

  • Angioplasty: We use angioplasty to remove blockages found in your heart vessels during cardiac catheterization. This allows your blood to flow more easily. The procedures are fast and cause very little pain. During angioplasty, we inflate a tiny balloon to open your artery.
  • Stenting: We leave a small wire cage (stent) in place to hold your artery open. At Aurora, we also offer bio-absorbable stents. With this new technology, the stent is made of a naturally dissolving material, similar to dissolving sutures. Bio-absorbable stents disappear completely approximately three years after they have finished helping your treated artery segment heal. Our doctors are among the first in Wisconsin to implant bio-absorbable stents.
  • Coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG): Our surgeons are highly rated experts in CABG (pronounced like “cabbage”), according to the Society of Thoracic Surgeons. This surgery improves the blood supply to the heart muscle by re-routing blood vessels and making a new pathway to your heart. Learn more about coronary artery bypass surgery.


Most people with coronary artery disease can also benefit from cardiac rehabilitation. We offer cardiac rehab at 14 locations in Wisconsin to get you on the road to recovery in your own community.

Learn more about cardiac rehabilitation.

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