Understanding Heart Disease -- Diagnosis and Treatment
How Do I Know If I Have Heart Disease?
In diagnosing heart disease, a doctor will first ask you for a description of symptoms and your medical history. Your physical condition also will be assessed through a standard medical exam. Listening to the heart for swishing or whooshing sounds, collectively known as heart murmurs, may provide important clues about heart trouble. If heart disease is suspected, further tests are done to find out what is actually happening inside the heart.
An electrocardiogram, or ECG, is usually the first test to be performed. By recording electrical activity within the heart, the ECG quickly reveals any electrical abnormalities that may be a source of trouble or may indicate that the heart muscle has been or is being injured by ischemia (lack of oxygen-rich blood).
Further details can be gathered by taking images of the heart using X-rays, a variety of of other scans using CT, MRI or nuclear technology, or via angiography, a special technique that allows for detailed imaging of blood vessels. Echocardiograms (ultrasound evaluations of the heart) can also determine how well the heart and valves are working.
Other tests may include stress testing, with or without additional imaging of the heart, and sophisticated testing for arrhythmias (such as electrophysiology testing or EP testing).
What Are the Treatments for Heart Disease?
Medical care is essential once heart disease is diagnosed. The goals of treatment are stabilizing the condition, controlling symptoms over the long term, and providing a cure when possible.
Stress reduction, diet, and lifestyle changes are key in managing heart disease, but the mainstays of conventional care are drugs and surgery.
Lifestyle and Your Heart
If you smoke, quit. You should also get in the habit of exercising, because exercise strengthens the heart and blood vessels, reduces stress, and has been shown to reduce blood pressure while also boosting HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Numerous studies done in recent decades indicate that drinking alcohol in moderation may actually reduce the risk of heart disease. But more than one drink a day for women, or more than one to two a day for men, is not recommended.
Learning to relax may help prevent and treat heart disease. While success varies from person to person, stress-reduction techniques have been shown to reduce high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, and emotional responses such as anxiety, anger, and hostility that have been linked to coronary heart disease, angina, and heart attack. The choice of relaxation technique is up to you. Some that have proved beneficial are meditation, progressive relaxation, yoga, and biofeedback training.
Nutrition, Diet, and Your Heart
Even modest changes in diet and lifestyle can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease. Being overweight, especially in the mid-section, can lead to high blood pressure and diabetes. If you are 20% or more over the ideal weight for your age, height, and sex, you put a strain on your heart's ability to pump blood efficiently. Although lowering sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat consumption are important for lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, equally vital is increasing intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole unprocessed high-fiber grains, and healthy sources of fats and proteins (as from fish, nuts, seeds, soy-based items, avocados, etc.).