Calcified arteries in the heart are a form of coronary artery disease. With this condition, calcium accumulates in the walls of the arteries that supply the heart muscle with oxygen-rich blood. The calcium makes the arteries hard.
Additionally, deposits called plaques inside the arteries reduce blood flow to the heart, robbing it of needed oxygen. Coronary artery calcification (CAC) typically causes no symptoms initially, as the condition develops over many years. When blood flow reaches a critically low level, symptoms such as shortness of breath with exertion and chest pain often occur.
People with CAC are at increased risk for a heart attack, heart failure and stroke. Treatment for CAC mirrors that for other forms of coronary artery disease. Lifestyle modifications, and medical and interventional treatments can relieve symptoms and prolong life.
Lifestyle modifications are important components of the treatment for coronary artery disease.
Stopping smoking and avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke is one of the most important steps you can take to reduce the risks that accompany CAC. According to a November 2013 article published in the European Heart Journal, stopping smoking reduces your risk of dying from heart disease or stroke by 36 percent in the first 2 years after you quit.
A diet planned with a dietitian or another qualified healthcare professional can help reduce blood cholesterol and lower blood pressure, key aspects of coronary heart disease treatment. The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology recommend a diet that limits salt, saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol while incorporating a rich array of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods.
Physical Activity and Weight Management
Regular physical activity and exercise can be useful for coronary artery disease treatment, although it's important to consult a healthcare professional before beginning an exercise program. Weight loss can be beneficial if you are overweight or obese. Even a modest amount of weight loss can help lower your risk of coronary artery disease complications.
Medical management refers to the use of medications to treat coronary artery disease. Aspirin is one of the most common medicines prescribed. It interferes with small particles in the blood called platelets, which help form blood clots — a good thing if you're bleeding. But when you have narrowing and calcification of the blood vessels in the heart, formation of a platelet plug can lead to a heart attack.
Other drugs, such as statins, are prescribed to lower total and bad cholesterol (LDL) levels in the body. If you have high blood pressure, various medications are used to lower the blood pressure. If symptoms are interfering with your daily activities, your doctor might prescribe nitrates to temporarily dilate the coronary arteries. Other medications such as beta blockers and calcium channel blockers can be used to decrease the amount of work the heart needs to do.
Interventional treatments include procedures performed to improve blood flow to the heart. There are several options for people with moderate to severe coronary artery narrowing and calcification.
Balloon angioplasty involves threading a small catheter into a narrowed coronary artery and inflating a tiny balloon within the catheter to increase the diameter of the blood vessel and improve blood flow. A stent — a hollow metal mesh tube — may be inserted to help keep the artery open.
Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery
Coronary artery bypass surgery involves taking blood vessels from elsewhere in the body and using them to bypass the narrowed coronary artery or arteries, thereby improving blood flow to the heart.
Transmyocardial Laser Revascularization
Transmyocardial laser revascularization may be an option for people for whom bypass surgery is not possible or too risky. With this procedure, a laser makes tiny channels through the heart muscle to supplement blood flow coming from the diseased coronary arteries.
Next Steps and Warnings
Doctors often detect CAC coincidentally in people who have not yet developed symptoms of coronary artery disease. While alarming, this can be a blessing in disguise because if gives you and your doctor an opportunity to take action to reduce your risk of developing a heart attack or stroke. Your doctor will recommend specific treatments based in your individual circumstances.
Seek emergency medical care if you develop any symptoms that might signal a heart attack or stroke, including:
- Chest pain, pressure or discomfort, which might radiate into the arm, neck or jaw
- Sudden shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Clammy skin
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
- Sudden weakness or paralysis affecting one side of the body
- Drooping of half the face
- Slurred speech or difficulty understanding speech
- Sudden vision change or double vision
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.
- Pharmacy Times: Multistep Approach to the Treatment of CAD
- Journal of Geriatric Cardiology: Current Understanding of Coronary Artery Calcification
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- Annals of Translational Medicine: Coronary Artery Calcification in Clinical Practice: What We Have Learned and Why Should It Routinely Be Reported on Chest CT?
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: 2013 AHA/ACC Guideline on Lifestyle Management to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: 2012 ACCF/AHA/ACP/AATS/PCNA/SCAI/STS Guideline for the Diagnosis and Management of Patients With Stable Ischemic Heart Disease
- Texas Heart Institute: Transmyocardial Laser Revascularization
- European Heart Journal: Managing Tobacco Use: The Neglected Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factor