Coronary Arteries

The coronary arteries lie on the outside surface of the heart.

The right coronary artery (RCA) supplies blood to the right side of the heart. The left coronary artery starts as the left main artery and divides into the left anterior descending (LAD) and circumflex (Cx) arteries. The left coronary artery supplies blood to the left side of the heart. Coronary arteries are about the size of cooked spaghetti. Many smaller branches lead from these main arteries.

The heart gets its blood supply from the coronary arteries. Blood is pumped from the left ventricle into the aorta, a large artery coming off of the left ventricle. The aorta supplies blood to the arteries of the heart as well as to the rest of the body.

Problems occur if the left ventricle is damaged and cannot pump enough blood to the coronary arteries. If blockages in the coronary arteries prevent blood from flowing smoothly, the heart muscle may not receive enough oxygen and nutrients to pump blood as it should.

Coronary Artery Disease

The inside of a coronary artery has a smooth lining through which blood easily flows. Coronary artery disease starts when the lining of the coronary artery is damaged. This often is due to a risk factor, such as smoking, hypertension or diabetes. A plaque deposit (a fatty material composed of cholesterol and other abnormal cells) forms between layers of the artery wall. This buildup, called atherosclerosis, causes the arteries to become stiff and slows the flow of blood to the heart muscle. Over time, buildup of stable plaque can clog the artery and cause a partial or total blockage.

Another way a coronary artery blockage can occur is when a plaque deposit becomes inflamed and unstable and actually ruptures inside the artery (see figure below). A rupture can narrow the artery even more and can cause a blood clot to form. If the blood clot is large enough, it will cut off blood flow immediately, and severe chest pain or a heart attack will result. If the heart muscle does not receive enough blood and oxygen, it is called ischemia. A symptom of ischemia is chest pain, called angina.