Coronary calcification is a process in which the interior lining of the coronary arteries develops a layer of hard substance known as plaque. Excessive amounts of cholesterol, fat, and waste material become calcified in arteries that have been weakened or damaged due to smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, or a generally unhealthy diet. Coronary calcification restricts blood flow, presenting the risk of chronic chest pain, heart attacks, and eventual heart failure.
Since plaque tends to build up over years or even decades until serious health problems occur, it is important to make healthy lifestyle choices and receive regular checkups with a physician to check for early warning signs of coronary calcification. Coronary artery problems can be treated with cholesterol lowering drugs if detected early, though advanced calcification may require surgery to prevent heart failure.
The medical term for the process that results in coronary calcification is atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis usually begins when a coronary artery is damaged or irritated, which is often a result of hypertension, smoking, a diet high in cholesterol, or diabetes. Blood platelets begin to build up in the artery in an attempt to repair damage, and material such as cellular waste, cholesterol, minerals, and calcium bind to the platelets. Over time, the calcium causes the rest of the material to harden into a plaque that continues to accumulate and restrict blood flow.
Atherosclerosis usually occurs slowly over many years before an individual starts noticing symptoms. Restricted blood flow can result in chest pain, numbness in the extremities, and a dangerous decrease in blood pressure. If left untreated, an individual with atherosclerosis can suffer a heart attack or heart failure as arteries become so clogged that very little blood is able to pass. The chance of heart problems increases if a clot forms in the arteries and completely stops blood flow.
Doctors usually check for signs of coronary calcification by conducting a physical examination, asking questions about a patient's medical and family history, and extracting blood for laboratory tests. A physician may also take electrocardiograms or computerized tomography scans to check for blockages in the coronary arteries. If problems are detected early, a patient may be able to find relief by adopting a healthy diet and exercise routine, avoid smoking and alcohol, taking cholesterol-lowering medications, and scheduling regular checkups to monitor progress. Progressed coronary calcification, however, often requires surgery to prevent potentially life-threatening complications.
The most common surgeries to reverse atherosclerosis are angioplasties and bypass procedures. An angioplasty involves the insertion of a tube and balloon into the damaged artery. The balloon is expanded inside the tube to open up the artery, then is removed and replaced with a stent to prevent collapse and further calcification. In a bypass procedure, a healthy blood vessel is extracted from another part of the body and grafted in place of the damaged coronary artery. Following surgery, a patient who can maintain a healthy lifestyle is usually relieved of symptoms and able to enjoy regular activities.