Coronary Artery Atherosclerosis Clinical Presentation

Updated: Apr 25, 2016
  • Author: F Brian Boudi, MD, FACP; Chief Editor: Yasmine S Ali, MD, FACC, FACP, MSCI  more...
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Presentation

History

The symptoms of atherosclerosis vary widely. Patients with mild atherosclerosis may present with clinically important symptoms and signs of disease and MI, or sudden cardiac death may be the first symptom of coronary heart disease. However, many patients with anatomically advanced disease may have no symptoms and experience no functional impairment.

The spectrum of presentation includes symptoms and signs consistent with the following conditions:

  • Asymptomatic state (subclinical phase)

  • Stable angina pectoris

  • Unstable angina (ie, ACS)

  • AMI

  • Chronic ischemic cardiomyopathy

  • Congestive heart failure

  • Sudden cardiac arrest

History may include the following:

  • Chest pain

  • Shortness of breath

  • Weakness, tiredness, reduced exertional capacity

  • Dizziness, palpitations

  • Leg swelling

  • Weight gain

  • Symptoms related to risk factors

Progressive luminal narrowing of an artery due to expansion of a fibrous plaque results in impairment of flow once at least 50-70% of the lumen diameter is obstructed. This impairment in flow results in symptoms of inadequate blood supply to the target organ in the event of increased metabolic activity and oxygen demand. Stable angina pectoris, intermittent claudication, and mesenteric angina are examples of the clinical consequences of this mismatch.

Rupture of a plaque or denudation of the endothelium overlying a fibrous plaque may result in exposure of the highly thrombogenic subendothelium and lipid core. This exposure may result in thrombus formation, which may partially or completely occlude flow in the involved artery. Unstable angina pectoris, MI, transient ischemic attack, and stroke are examples of the clinical sequelae of partial or complete acute occlusion of an artery. Atheroembolism is a distinct clinical entity that may occur spontaneously or as a complication of aortic surgery, angiography, or thrombolytic therapy in patients with advanced and diffuse atherosclerosis.

Angina pectoris is characterized by retrosternal chest discomfort that typically radiates to the left arm and may be associated with dyspnea. Angina pectoris is exacerbated by exertion and relieved by rest or nitrate therapy. Unstable angina pectoris describes a pattern of increasing frequency or intensity of episodes of angina pectoris and includes pain at rest. A prolonged episode of angina pectoris that may be associated with diaphoresis is suggestive of MI.

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Physical Examination

Tachycardia is common in persons with ACS and AMI. Heart rate irregularity may signal the presence of atrial fibrillation or frequent supraventricular or ventricular ectopic beats. Ventricular tachycardia is the most common cause of death in persons with AMI.

High or low blood pressure may be noted. Hypotension often reflects hemodynamic compromise and is a predictor of poor outcome in the setting of AMI. Diaphoresis is a common finding. Patients often have rapid breathing (ie, tachypnea). Signs and symptoms of congestive heart failure (CHF) may indicate cardiogenic shock or a mechanical complication of AMI, such as ischemic mitral valve regurgitation.

An S4 gallop is a common early finding. The presence of an S3 is an indication of reduced left ventricular function. Heart murmurs, particularly those of mitral regurgitation and ventricular septal defect, may be found after the initial presentation; their presence indicates a grave prognosis. The murmur of aortic insufficiency may signal the presence of aortic dissection as a primary etiology, with or without the complication of AMI. Central obesity is often seen. Patients may develop xanthelasmas, livedo reticularis, or both. Patients may have scarring from CABG or similar surgeries.

The following may also be noted:

  • Shock

  • Syncope

  • Leg edema

  • Pulmonary congestion

  • Rales

  • Diagonal ear crease

  • Short stature

  • Baldness

  • Thoracic hairiness

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