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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago

Coronary Artery Disease

Atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries") is a slow process in which deposits of fat, cholesterol, and calcium build up inside the artery. These deposits are called plaque. Like the inside of a rusty water pipe, the artery wall becomes rough, hard, and more narrow. When the heart vessels are affected, blood flow and oxygen to the heart is decreased. Over time, the plaque can rupture and cause a blood clot to form. With the plaque, this clot can further block the blood and oxygen supply to the heart muscle, leading to coronary artery disease (CAD).


CAD may cause several problems, including:

Stable Angina—chest pain or discomfort due to a decrease in blood flow.

Acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS)—a condition that often occurs when plaque ruptures. This can cause unstable angina or a heart attack (myocardial infarction).

Heart Failure (HF)—a condition in which the heart muscle may become weak, stiff, or thickened. This limits how well it can pump blood to the body. HF can result from damage to the heart muscle from CAD, or after a heart attack. It can also be caused by high blood pressure, heart valve disease, infection of the heart muscle or other heart defects.

Many patients may have angina and as a result they may have:

  • Chest pressure, tightness or pain
  • Back pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Neck pain

Symptoms can also include nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, fatigue or excessive sweating. It is important to recognize that coronary artery disease may progress slowly and can be without symptoms.

Risk Factors

Risk factors are habits, traits or conditions that may increase a person's chance of developing atherosclerosis.

Risk factors for cardiac and vascular disease that cannot be changed include:

  • Family history
  • Age
  • Gender (male or post-menopausal female)

Risk factors that can be controlled or modified include:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Excess weight
  • Stress
  • Lack of exercise


For more information regarding coronary artery disease, please contact the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at 1-866-662-8467 or request a first time appointment online.

Last UpdateSeptember 12, 2012