Coronary heart disease: symptoms and diagnosis

Many people don't know they have coronary heart disease until they experience some symptoms such as angina or a heart attack.

In its early stages, coronary heart disease or ischemic heart disease generally has few symptoms.

Whether or not you’re at risk of coronary heart disease, it’s a good idea to schedule regular check-ups with your doctor to keep an eye on your heart health.

Symptoms of coronary heart disease

In its later stages, the most common symptom of coronary heart disease is angina which can include:

  • dull pain or discomfort in your chest (sometimes mistaken for heartburn or indigestion)
  • tightness or heaviness in the centre of your chest, spreading to your neck, jaw, arms, back or stomach.

These symptoms can be triggered by stress or physical activity but usually pass within 10 minutes.

If you’re having a heart attack, you may experience:

  • breathlessness
  • nausea
  • light-headedness
  • sweating
  • pain in the chest, arms, jaw, neck, back or stomach.

Call triple zero (000) immediately if you think you might be having a heart attack.

Diagnosing coronary heart disease

Blood test tubes

There are a number of different tests to check your heart health if your doctor suspects you could have coronary heart disease.

Visit your GP

Here are some of the ways your doctor might assess whether you have coronary heart disease or are at increased risk of developing it:

  • Ask you questions about your health.
  • Ask about any family history of heart disease.
  • Carry out a physical examination.
  • Check your blood pressure.
  • Order blood tests to check your cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
  • Order imaging or electrical tests.

Blood tests

Your doctor may order these tests, especially if you:

  • have a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease
  • are 45 or older
  • are at risk of developing heart disease (eg. You have diabetes or you smoke)
  • are taking cholesterol-lowering medicines.

The tests measure the amount of ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol), ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL-cholesterol) and the total amount of cholesterol in your blood. Your doctor may also order a test for another type of fat (lipid) called triglycerides that are found naturally in your blood.

Imaging and electrical tests

There are three main imaging or electrical tests used to check your heart health. You may need to have one or more of these:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG). In this test, you’re fitted with electrical leads on your chest, arms and legs to detect and record the electrical signals that make your heart beat.
  • Echocardiogram. An echocardiogram uses ultrasound waves to create a picture of your heart. The images show the structure of your heart and how well it’s working.
  • Angiogram. An angiogram is an X-ray of your heart, used to see whether your arteries are narrowed or blocked.

If you’re experiencing coronary heart disease symptoms, think you may be at risk of heart disease or want to know more about treating it, make an appointment with your doctor.

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