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Understanding Heart Disease

Monday 17 August 2020
Cardiovascular Disorders

Table of Contents


I. What is Heart Disease?

II. The Function of the Heart

III. The Different Types of Heart Disease

IV. Symptoms

V. Diagnosis

VI. Treatment for Heart Disease

a. Complications


What is Heart Disease?

Heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, is not one condition, but a range of disorders that affect blood circulation in the body. Heart disease includes blood vessel diseases, coronary artery diseases, heart defects, and heart rhythm problems. In 2018, over 30 million people in the United States were diagnosed with heart disease. Among these millions of diagnoses, around 647,000 people in the U.S. die from this disease every year. [1]

The heart is one of the most important organs in the body, so if it begins to malfunction then the body experiences several problems. Many heart disorders are degenerative and often occur as someone gets older. It is essential for someone with heart disease to make the necessary lifestyle changes in order to maintain their long-term health. Fatal complications are common with this disease, so many medications like captopril, Bystolic (nebivolol), and Coreg (carvedilol) can be used to maintain symptoms.

Heart disease affects the heart organ in several ways, and symptoms depend on the type of heart disease they are experiencing. Men and women typically have different symptoms, so it is essential to keep an eye on your body and talk to your doctor if you suspect any heart problems. [2] Read on to learn more about the symptoms and treatment for heart disease.

a diagram of the various parts of the heart

The Function of the Heart

The heart is a powerful muscle that sends blood all around the body. That blood provides the body with oxygen and nutrients and carries away any waste. The right side of the heart receives blood and pumps it to the lungs, and the left side receives blood from the lungs and pumps it out to the rest of the body. The two top chambers of the heart are called atria, and the two bottom chambers are called ventricles. The part running down the middle of the heart is called the septum, a thick wall of muscle that separates the left and right side of the heart. All of these parts work together to fill the heart with blood and squeeze the blood out of the heart and into the body.

When you have chronic heart disease, there is less blood flow to the heart and organs. If the heart is not getting enough oxygen, then it can cause chest pain and other symptoms like shortness of breath and fatigue. The tubes that allow blood to leave the heart (arteries and veins) may also be affected by heart problems and cause a lack of circulation and oxygen. [3]

The Different Types of Heart Disease

Heart disease can be grouped into four categories. The types of heart disease include:

Heart rhythm disorders: Heart rhythm disorders, also known as arrhythmias, can cause the heart to beat abnormally. The heart may beat too quickly or in a disorganized fashion. This is a fairly common condition that disrupts blood flow. Many of these disorders have no symptoms or warning signs, but they can be fatal if left untreated.

Coronary artery and vascular disease: This type of heart disease causes the arteries to harden, known as atherosclerosis. These arteries can become blocked or narrowed and can cause heart attacks and chest pain. This can lead to reduced blood flow and affect heart function. [4]

a diagram showing how fat can narrow arteries near the heart

Structural heart disease: Those with structural heart disease have abnormalities in the makeup of the heart. This can present itself as problems in the valves, walls, muscles, or blood vessels near the heart. This type of heart disease can be present at birth or acquired through infection or general wear and tear. Structural heart disease typically requires ongoing medication and medical care.

Heart failure: Heart failure happens over time as the heart becomes damaged or weak. The most common causes of heart failure are high blood pressure and heart attacks. If you have heart failure, you will likely need to make lifestyle changes and ongoing medications to limit your hospital stays. [4]

Symptoms

Heart disease symptoms can differ from person to person, and your doctor will let you know what is normal for your condition. 

Heart rhythm disorder symptoms:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Fluttering in your chest
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting or near fainting [5]

Coronary artery disease symptoms:

  • Sweating or “cold sweats”
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats
  • Dizziness or extreme weakness [6]

a woman looking tired while lying on an armchair

Structural heart disease symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty exercising
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney dysfunction
  • Migraines
  • Heart palpitations [7]

Heart failure symptoms:

  • Lack of appetite and nausea
  • Swelling of your abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet
  • Very rapid weight gain from fluid retention
  • Increased need to urinate during the night
  • Reduced ability to exercise [5]

Diagnosis

There are several tests needed to diagnose heart disease. To start, your doctor may recommend a stress test to raise your heart rate with exercise or medicine. During these tests, your heart rate will be measured to check how your heart responds to stress. If it is found that your heart is acting abnormally, an electrocardiogram (ECG) can record the electrical signals and help detect irregularities in the heart rhythm.

You may also get a cardiac catheterization, which involves a flexible tube inserted into the heart’s artery. Once this guide catheter is inserted into the heart, it will measure the pressure in the heart’s chambers. A dye will then be released, and doctors can examine how the blood flows in and out of the heart through the dye's movement. A cardiac MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT (computerized tomography) scan can also check for heart problems. [6]

a diagram showing how a stress test is performed, with a man on a treadmill

Treatment for Heart Disease

Beta-Blockers: Beta-blockers work by reducing blood pressure. These drugs lower the effect of a hormone called epinephrine (adrenaline). Commonly prescribed medications include Bystolic (nebivolol) and Coreg (carvedilol). These drugs will improve blood flow and open up veins and arteries. [8]

ACE Inhibitors: ACE (angiotensin-converting-enzyme) inhibitors work by decreasing certain chemicals that can tighten blood vessels and allow a greater flow of blood to the heart. They can also treat high blood pressure and lower the heart’s workload. Vasotec (enalapril) and captopril are common ACE inhibitors. [9]

Surgery: Medications can work long-term for heart disease, but surgery may be required if the heart is in failure. You may require a pacemaker to improve blood flow or a medical stent to open arteries or veins near the heart. [5]

a. Complications

Finding the right treatment for your type of heart disease is important because it can lead to many serious complications. If you live a long time with heart disease, you may experience sudden cardiac arrest or heart attack. These events may be deadly or lead to permanent disability. Heart disease can also result in an aneurysm, a bulge in the wall of the artery. When this bulge bursts, it can cause internal bleeding, which may result in death. 

Strokes are another arterial problem, which involves blocked arteries to the brain. If these arteries narrow, brain tissue can die and lead to permanent brain damage. All of these complications can be life-threatening, so make sure to follow your treatment plan. [5]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.