Ischaemic heart disease

Ischaemic (or ischemic) heart disease is a disease characterized by reduced blood supply to the heart muscle. It is the most common cause of death in Australia and most western countries. Ischaemia means a “reduced blood supply”.

The coronary arteries supply blood to the heart muscle, and no alternative blood supply exists, so a blockage in the coronary arteries reduces the supply of blood to heart muscle.

Most ischaemic heart disease is caused by atherosclerosis, a build up of cholesterol in the walls of the coronary arteries.  Atherosclerosis can be present for years in the coronary arteries without causing blockages or symptoms.

Blockages in the coronary arteries can occur suddenly – this process is called a ‘heart attack’ in layman’s terms, and is a medical emergency. A sudden blockage in a coronary artery is commonly (but not always) felt as a sudden tightness in the chest, along with other symptoms like nausea and vomiting, dizziness and arm and jaw discomfort. One third of heart attacks do not cause these or any symptoms. A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, occurs when a blood vessel is partially or completely blocked, preventing blood flow to the heart, causing heart muscle to die.

When a coronary artery builds up a narrowing slowly, the reduced blood supply to the heart muscle, may be felt as Angina.

Blocked coronary arteries can cause permanent damage to heart muscle by cutting off its blood supply.

Ischaemic heart disease is incurable, but it can be controlled and treated, as well as prevented in many cases. Treatment includes lifestyle modifications such as dietary changes, weight loss and smoking cessation, medications such as aspirin, statins, ACE inhibitors, beta blockers, and medical procedures such as coronary stenting, and coronary bypass surgery.