Filed under: Heart & Vascular
Heart disease is a broad term used to describe a range of diseases that affect your heart. The various diseases that fall under the umbrella of heart disease include diseases of your blood vessels, such as coronary artery disease; heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias); heart infections; and heart defects you're born with (congenital heart defects).
The term "heart disease" is often used interchangeably with "cardiovascular disease." Cardiovascular disease generally refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke. Other heart conditions, such as infections and conditions that affect your heart's muscle, valves or beating rhythm, also are considered forms of heart disease.
Many forms of heart disease can be prevented or treated with healthy lifestyle choices.
Heart disease symptoms vary, depending on what type of heart disease you have.
Symptoms of heart disease in your blood vessels (cardiovascular disease)
Cardiovascular disease is caused by narrowed, blocked or stiffened blood vessels that prevent your heart, brain or other parts of your body from receiving enough blood. Cardiovascular disease symptoms can include:
You might not be diagnosed with cardiovascular disease until your condition worsens to the point that you have a heart attack, angina, stroke or heart failure. It's important to watch for cardiovascular symptoms and discuss any concerns with your doctor. Cardiovascular disease can sometimes be found early with regular visits to your doctor.
Heart disease symptoms caused by abnormal heartbeats (heart arrhythmias)
A heart arrhythmia is an abnormal heartbeat. Your heart may beat too quickly, too slowly or irregularly if you have an arrhythmia. Heart arrhythmia symptoms can include:
Heart disease symptoms caused by heart defects
Serious congenital heart defects — defects you're born with — usually become evident soon after birth. Heart defect symptoms could include:
Less serious congenital heart defects are often not diagnosed until later in childhood or even during adulthood. Signs and symptoms of congenital heart defects that usually aren't immediately life-threatening include:
Heart disease symptoms caused by thick heart muscle (cardiomyopathy)
Cardiomyopathy is the thickening and stiffening of heart muscle. In early stages of cardiomyopathy, you may have no symptoms. As the condition worsens, cardiomyopathy symptoms include:
Heart disease symptoms caused by heart infections
There are three types of heart infections:
Varying slightly with each type of infection, heart infection symptoms can include:
Heart disease symptoms caused by valvular heart disease
The heart has four valves — the aortic, mitral, pulmonary and tricuspid valves — that open and close to direct blood flow through your heart. Valves may be damaged by a variety of conditions leading to narrowing (stenosis), leaking (regurgitation or insufficiency) or improper closing (prolapse). Depending on which valve isn't working properly, valvular heart disease symptoms generally include:
When to see a doctor
Seek emergency medical care if you have these heart disease symptoms:
Heart disease is easier to treat when it's detected early, so talk to your doctor about any concerns you have about your heart health. If you don't have known heart disease but are concerned about developing heart disease, talk to your doctor about steps you can take to reduce your heart disease risk. This is especially important if you have a family history of heart disease.
If you think you may have heart disease, based on new signs or symptoms you've been having, make an appointment to see your doctor.
How the heart works
To understand heart disease, it helps to know how the heart works. Your heart is a pump. It's a muscular organ about the size of your fist and located slightly left of center in your chest. Your heart is divided into the right and the left side. The division protects oxygen-rich blood from mixing with oxygen-poor blood. Oxygen-poor blood returns to the heart after circulating through your body.
The right side of the heart, composed of the right atrium and ventricle, collects and pumps blood to the lungs through the pulmonary arteries. The lungs refresh the blood with a new supply of oxygen, making it turn red. Oxygen-rich blood then enters the left side of the heart, composed of the left atrium and ventricle, and is pumped through the aorta to supply tissues throughout the body with oxygen and nutrients.
Four valves within your heart keep your blood moving the right way. The tricuspid, mitral, pulmonary and aortic valves open only one way and only when pushed on. Each valve opens and closes once per heartbeat — or about once every second while you're at rest.
A beating heart contracts and relaxes. Contraction is called systole, and relaxation is called diastole. During systole, your ventricles contract, forcing blood into the vessels going to your lungs and body — much like ketchup being forced out of a squeeze bottle. The right ventricle contracts a little bit before the left ventricle does. Your ventricles then relax during diastole and are filled with blood coming from the upper chambers, the left and right atria. The cycle then starts over again.
Your heart also has electrical wiring, which keeps it beating. Electrical impulses begin high in the right atrium and travel through specialized pathways to the ventricles, delivering the signal to pump. The conduction system keeps your heart beating in a coordinated and normal rhythm, which in turn keeps blood circulating. The continuous exchange of oxygen-rich blood with oxygen-poor blood is what keeps you alive.
The causes of heart disease vary by type of heart disease.
Causes of cardiovascular disease
While cardiovascular disease can refer to many different types of heart or blood vessel problems, the term is often used to mean damage caused to your heart or blood vessels by atherosclerosis (ath-ur-oh-skluh-ROW-sis), a buildup of fatty plaques in your arteries. This is a disease that affects your arteries. Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body. Healthy arteries are flexible and strong.
Over time, however, too much pressure in your arteries can make the walls thick and stiff — sometimes restricting blood flow to your organs and tissues. This process is called hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis). Atherosclerosis is the most common form of this disorder. Atherosclerosis is also the most common cause of cardiovascular disease, and it's often caused by an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, being overweight and smoking. All of these are major risk factors for developing atherosclerosis and, in turn, cardiovascular disease.
Causes of heart arrhythmia
Common causes of abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), or conditions that can lead to arrhythmias include:
In a healthy person with a normal, healthy heart, it's unlikely for a fatal arrhythmia to develop without some outside trigger, such as an electrical shock or the use of illegal drugs. That's primarily because a healthy person's heart is free from any abnormal conditions that cause an arrhythmia, such as an area of scarred tissue.
However, in a heart that's diseased or deformed, the heart's electrical impulses may not properly start or travel through the heart, making arrhythmias more likely to develop.
Causes of heart defects
Heart defects usually develop while a baby is still in the womb. About a month after conception, the heart begins to develop. It's at this point that heart defects can begin to form. Some medical conditions, medications and genes may play a role in causing heart defects.
Heart defects can also develop in adults. As you age, your heart's structure can change, causing a heart defect.
Causes of cardiomyopathy
The exact cause of cardiomyopathy, a thickening or enlarging of the heart muscle, is unknown. There are three types of cardiomyopathy:
Causes of heart infection
Heart infections, such as pericarditis, endocarditis and myocarditis, are caused when an irritant, such as a bacterium, virus or chemical, reaches your heart muscle. The most common causes of heart infections include:
Causes of valvular heart disease
There are many causes of diseases of your heart valves. Four valves within your heart keep blood flowing in the right direction. You may be born with valvular disease, or the valves may be damaged by such conditions as rheumatic fever, infections (infectious endocarditis), connective tissue disorders, and certain medications or radiation treatments for cancer.
Heart disease risk factors include:
Complications of heart disease include:
Some types of heart disease will be discovered without an appointment — for example, if a child is born with serious heart defect, it will be detected soon after birth. In other cases, your heart disease may be diagnosed in an emergency situation, such as a heart attack.
If you think you may have heart disease or are worried about your heart disease risk because of a strong family history, make an appointment with your family doctor. If heart disease is found early, your treatment may be easier and more effective. Eventually, however, you may be referred to a heart specialist (cardiologist).
Because appointments can be brief and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important, in case time runs out. For heart disease, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may reserve time to go over any points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor may ask:
What you can do in the meantime
It's never too early to make healthy lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, eating healthy foods and becoming more physically active. These are primary lines of defense against heart disease and its complications.
The tests you'll need to diagnose your heart disease depend on what condition your doctor thinks you might have. No matter what type of heart disease you have, your doctor will likely perform a physical exam and ask about your personal and family medical history before doing any tests. Tests to diagnose heart disease can include:
Echocardiogram. This noninvasive exam, which includes an ultrasound of your chest, shows detailed images of your heart's structure and function. Sound waves are transmitted, and their echoes are recorded with a device called a transducer that's held outside your body. A computer uses the information from the transducer to create moving images on a video monitor.
If the images from a regular echocardiogram are unclear, your doctor may recommend a transesophageal ultrasound. During this exam, you swallow a flexible tube containing a small transducer, about the size of your index finger, that is guided down your throat. The transducer will transmit images of your heart to a computer monitor.
Heart disease treatments vary. You may need lifestyle changes, medications, surgery or other medical procedures as part of your treatment.
Cardiovascular disease treatments
The goal in treating diseases of your arteries (cardiovascular disease) is often to open narrowed arteries that cause your symptoms. Depending on how severe the blockages in your arteries are, treatment may include:
Medical procedures or surgery. If medications aren't enough, it's possible your doctor will recommend specific procedures or surgery to clear the blockages in your heart. A common procedure is coronary angioplasty, which is performed by placing a catheter in an artery in your arm or groin and threading a small balloon to your blocked artery and inflating it to reopen the artery. A small metal coil called a stent is often placed in the artery during angioplasty. The stent helps keep the artery open.
Sometimes a more invasive procedure, coronary artery bypass surgery, is necessary. In this procedure, a vein from another part of your body — usually your leg — is used to bypass the blocked section of the artery.
Heart arrhythmia treatments
Depending on the seriousness of your condition, your doctor may simply recommend maneuvers or medications to correct your irregular heartbeat. It's also possible you'll need a medical device or surgery if your condition is more serious.
Heart defect treatments
Some heart defects are minor and don't require treatment, while others may require regular checkups, medications or even surgery. Depending on what heart defect you have and how severe it is, your treatment could include:
Treatment for cardiomyopathy varies, depending on what type of cardiomyopathy you have and how serious it is. Treatments can include:
Heart infection treatments
The first treatment for heart infections such as pericarditis, endocarditis or myocarditis is often medications, which may include:
If your heart infection is severe and damages your heart, you may need surgery to repair the damaged portion of your heart.
Valvular heart disease treatments
Although treatments for valvular heart disease can vary depending on what valve is affected and how severe your condition is, treatment options generally include:
Heart disease can be improved — or even prevented — by making certain lifestyle changes. The following changes can help anyone who wants to improve his or her heart health:
In addition to healthy lifestyle changes, remember the importance of regular medical checkups. Early detection and treatment can set the stage for a lifetime of better heart health.
There are several alternative medicines that may be effective in lowering cholesterol and preventing some types of heart disease, including:
As with any alternative medicine, talk to your doctor before adding any new supplements to your treatment regimen. Even natural medicines and herbal supplements can interact with medications you're taking.
You may feel frustrated, upset or overwhelmed upon learning you or your loved one has heart disease. Fortunately, there are ways to help cope with heart disease or improve your condition. These include:
Certain types of heart disease, such as heart defects, can't be prevented. However, you can help prevent many other types of heart disease by making the same lifestyle changes that can improve your heart disease, such as:
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