Bring up heart disease, and most people think of a heart attack. But there are many conditions that can hamper the heart's ability to do its job. These include coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, and heart failure. You'll want to know what they do to the body and learn how to spot the warning signs.
What Is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack suddenly interrupts the heart's blood supply. This happens when there is a blockage in the coronary arteries, which carry blood to the heart muscle. When blood flow is blocked, heart muscle can be damaged very quickly and die. Prompt emergency treatment is a must and saves lives.
Heart Attack Symptoms
A heart attack is an emergency even when symptoms are mild. Warning signs include:
Pain or pressure in the chest
Discomfort spreading to the back, jaw, throat, or arm
Nausea, indigestion, or heartburn
Weakness, anxiety, or shortness of breath
Fast or irregular heartbeats
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
Women don't always feel chest pain with a heart attack. Compared to men, they are more likely to have heartburn, loss of appetite, tiredness or weakness, coughing, and heart flutters. Do not ignore these symptoms. Delaying treatment can mean more heart damage.
Signs of Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease happens when sticky plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries. This narrows the arteries, making it harder for blood to flow through. Many people don't know they have it until a heart attack strikes. But there are warning signs, such as recurring chest pain caused by the restricted blood flow. This pain is known as angina.
Inside a Heart Attack
The plaque that builds up in your arteries is hard on the outside and soft and mushy on the inside. Sometimes the hard outer shell cracks. When this happens, a blood clot forms around the plaque. If the clot completely blocks the artery, it cuts off the blood supply to a portion of the heart. Without immediate treatment, that part of the heart muscle could be damaged or destroyed.
Take Immediate Action
If you think you may be having a heart attack, even if you're not sure, call 911 right away. Don't wait to see if you feel better. And don't drive yourself to the hospital. When you call 911, the EMS staff can start emergency care as soon as they reach you.
Sudden Cardiac Death
This isn't the same as a heart attack. Sudden cardiac death happens when the heart's electrical system goes haywire, making it beat irregularly and dangerously fast. The heart's pumping chambers may quiver instead of pumping blood out to the body. Without CPR and getting a regular heart rhythm restored, it can kill in minutes.
Arrythmia: Erratic Heart Beat
Regular electrical impulses make your heart beat. Sometimes those impulses become erratic. The heart may race, slow down, or quiver. Arrhythmias are often harmless changes in rhythm that pass quickly. But some types make your heart less effective at pumping blood, and that can take a serious toll on the body. Let your doctor know if you've noticed your heart beating abnormally.
This is a disease that involves changes in the heart muscle. It can make it harder for the heart to pump effectively, which can lead to a long-term condition called heart failure. Cardiomyopathy is sometimes linked to other conditions, such as high blood pressure or heart valve disease.
This doesn't mean your heart stops working. It means the heart can't pump enough blood to meet the body's needs. Over time, the heart gets bigger to hold more blood, it pumps faster to increase the amount of blood moving out of it, and the blood vessels narrow. The heart muscle may also weaken, curbing the blood supply even more. Most cases of heart failure are the result of coronary artery disease and heart attacks.
Congenital Heart Defect
This is a heart defect that you're born with. The problem could be a leaky heart valve, problems in the walls that separate the heart chambers, or other heart trouble. Some defects aren't found until a person becomes an adult. Not all need treatment, but some require medicine or surgery. People with congenital heart defects may be more likely to get complications such as arrhythmias, heart failure, and heart valve infection, but there are ways to lower this risk.
An EKG (or ECG) records the heart's electrical activity. It's a painless test that uses electrodes that go on your skin for a few minutes. The results give your doctor information about your heart rhythm and any damage to the heart muscle. An EKG can help diagnose a heart attack and check on problems such as an enlarged heart. Your doctor can also track your EKGs over time, comparing them to see how your heart is doing.
The stress test measures how your heart responds when it has to work hard. You'll walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike, and the workout will keep getting tougher. Your doctor will closely watch your EKG, heart rate, and blood pressure. The results will help show if your heart muscle gets enough blood.
This kind of monitor is a portable heart rhythm recorder. If your doctor thinks you may have a heart rhythm problem, she might ask you to wear one for a day or two. It records your heart's continuous electrical activity day and night, compared with an EKG, which is a snapshot in time. The doctor will probably also ask you to write down your activities and to note any symptoms and when they happen.
This picture of your heart, lungs, and chest bones is made by using a very small amount of radiation. Doctors can use chest X-rays to look for possible problems with the heart and lungs.
In this image, the bulge seen on the right side is an enlarged left ventricle, the heart's main pumping chamber.
This test uses sound waves (ultrasound) to make moving images of the heart. It can check the chambers and valves of your heart and how well your heart muscle and valves work. It's useful when doctors diagnose and evaluate several types of heart disease, as well as gauging the effectiveness of treatments.
Cardiac computerized tomography (known as cardiac CT) takes detailed images of the heart and its blood vessels. A computer stacks the images to create a 3-D picture of heart. Doctors can use cardiac CT to look for plaque or calcium buildup in the coronary arteries, heart valve problems, and other types of heart disease.
This procedure helps diagnose and treat some heart conditions. The doctor guides a narrow tube, called a catheter, through a blood vessel in your arm or leg until it reaches the coronary arteries. They inject dye into each coronary artery to make them easy to see with an X-ray. This shows any blockages and how severe they are. Doctors can do treatments such as angioplasty or inserting stents during this procedure.
Living With Heart Disease
Most forms of heart disease are chronic, or ongoing. In the beginning, symptoms may be too mild to affect everyday life. And in many cases, long-term treatment can keep the symptoms under control. But if the heart begins to fail, people may start to have shortness of breath, fatigue, or swelling in their ankles, feet, legs, and abdomen. You can manage heart failure with medication, lifestyle changes, surgery, and in some cases, a heart transplant.
There are many prescription drugs doctors use to treat heart disease. Some lower blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol levels. Others control abnormal heart rhythms or prevent clots. For people who already have some heart damage, there are medications to help their heart pump blood.
This procedure opens a blocked heart artery and improves blood flow to the heart. The doctor guides a thin catheter with a balloon on the end into the artery. When the balloon reaches the blockage, it is expanded, opening up the artery for better blood flow. The doctor may also insert a small mesh tube, called a stent, to keep the artery open after angioplasty.
Bypass surgery gives blood a new pathway when the coronary arteries are too narrow or blocked. The doctor first moves a blood vessel from one area of the body -- such as the chest, legs, or arms -- and attaches it to the blocked artery so it bypasses the blocked part.
Who's at Risk for Heart Disease?
Men are more likely to have a heart attack than women, and at an earlier age. But heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women alike. People with a family history of heart trouble also have a greater risk of having it, too.
Risk Factors You Control
You're more likely to get heart disease if you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes (especially if your blood sugar levels are not well-controlled). Being overweight, obese, or physically inactive also make heart disease more likely. So does smoking. Talk with your doctor about your risks and make a plan to protect your heart.
Why Smoking Hurts Your Heart
If you smoke, you're two to four times more likely to get heart disease than a nonsmoker. Now is the perfect time to quit. Within 24 hours, your heart attack risk begins to fall.
Life After a Heart Attack
You can regain your health after a heart attack. Don't smoke, become more active, keep up with your medications, and follow the diet your doctor recommends. One of the best ways to learn how to make these changes is to take part in a cardiac rehab program. Ask your doctor for a referral.
Heart Disease Prevention
You can take action daily to guard your heart. This includes a healthy diet, at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week, not smoking, and controlling high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes. If you drink alcohol, limit it to no more than one drink a day for women, two drinks a day for men. Ask your friends and family to make these changes with you. It's good for them, too!
Diet and Your Heart
What you eat makes a difference. Go for plenty of whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruits. Plant oils, walnuts, other nuts, and seeds are good for your cholesterol levels. Eat fish at least a couple of times each week for a good source of heart-healthy protein. If you have heart disease, you may want to work with a nutritionist as well as your doctor to make these changes.
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American Heart Association web site.
APS Foundation of America.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site.
Cleveland Clinic web site.
National Heart Lung and Blood Institute web site.
The Texas Heart Institute web site.
U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health web site.
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.