Heart Condition Encyclopedia

Having a heart condition sounds scary, and it can beóheart disease kills more than 600,000 people in the U.S. annually. Fortunately, many heart issues are preventable or treatable.

Arrhythmia

This is an abnormality with the heartbeat in which the rate or rhythm of the heart is off; the heart may beat too fast, too slow, or irregularly. Some forms of arrhythmia, like tachycardia (very fast heartbeat) and ventricular fibrillation (chaotic contraction of the lower chambers of the heart) can cause the heart to stop suddenly.

Atrial Fibrillation

The most common type of heart arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation (or AFib) occurs when the upper chambers of the heart beat irregularly, or too slowly or rapidly. "This is basically an electrical problem of the heart," says David A. Friedman, MD, chief, Heart Failure Services at Northwell Healthís Franklin Hospital in Valley Stream, NY. "There is a conduction abnormality, and it means the electricity is not firing right." AFib can increase your risk of stroke and heart failure. High blood pressure and long-term stress can contribute to an AFib diagnosis.

Treatment varies, depending on your age. You may be given a medication to slow your heart rate down, or you may have electrical cardioversion, in which a shock of electricity is delivered to the heart. When this happens, the heart "resets," explains Jose Taveras, MD, a cardiologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "This is the most effective and safe treatment that we have for atrial fibrillation," he says.

Cardiac Arrest

In cardiac arrest, the heart no longer is able to pump blood to the vital organs, according to Deborah Kwon, MD, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic. "A patient in cardiac arrest loses consciousness and cannot breathe on their own. Often, if a patient has progressive and end stage heart failure, he will die of cardiac arrest."

Cardiomyopathy

Cardiomyopathy refers to a group of diseases of the heart, all of which cause the heart muscle to become enlarged, thickened, or more rigid than itís supposed to be. Sometimes scar tissue replaces heart muscle tissue. High blood pressure, infections, and other diseases can cause cardiomyopathy, and some types run in families. Medicines, surgery, and lifestyle changes are used to treat the condition.

Coronary Artery Disease

Also known as CAD, coronary artery disease is the main cause of heart attacks. In this disorder, thereís a harmful buildup of plaque, a combination of cholesterol and other substances, in the arteries of the heart. This can lead to a heart attack. Symptoms of coronary artery disease include shortness of breath, chest pain, palpitations, and even fatigue, according to the American Heart Association.

Risk factors for coronary artery disease include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and family history. Women are at an increased risk for a heart attack after menopause, as are men over the age of 45. Coronary artery disease is preventable in many instances, and you can reduce your risk by eating a healthy diet, maintaining a normal weight, and getting plenty of exercise.

Heart Attack

The statistics are scary: Every 43 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction.

How does this happen? "Blood always needs to reach the heart, but when an artery closes off, the person has a heart attack," says Taveras. "The heart is very delicate, and in a heart attack some of the heart muscle can die." Heart attack symptoms run the gamut from sweating, anxiety, and nausea, to pain and a burning sensation in the chest. Itís crucial to seek treatment quickly because the longer you wait, the more damage may be done to the heart muscle, Taveras adds.

Heart Failure

When your heart can't pump enough blood through the body, it's called heart failure. Your heart could fail for a couple of reasons, Friedman says. "Either the heart muscle weakens and canít pump effectively, or it [the muscle] is very stiff and so the blood flow is not adequate." Symptoms include shortness of breath, weight gain, fatigue, and swelling of the legs.

If you have heart failure, medications to control blood pressure will be prescribed. "These lower blood pressure and have been shown to strengthen the heart," Friedman says. Half the individuals who are diagnosed with heart failure have about a five-year lifespan. If you have symptoms, prompt diagnosis is crucial: "It is important to get the right treatment so that survival is longer."

Heart Valve Problems

The heart valves are like the muscle's doors, Friedman says. "They separate the chambers of the heart, but when they donít open or close well because they are old, rusty, thickened, or calcified [this happens when calcium builds up and causes the tissue to harden], then you have a valve problem."

Heart valve problems may be suspected when your doctor hears a heart murmur, which is due to the turbulent blood flow around a diseased valve. Your physician may order an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to create pictures that show how well the heart is working, to get a better picture of whatís going on, Friedman says. If the person has symptoms like shortness of breath, the valve may be surgically repaired or replaced. Sometimes the condition will simply be monitored, with doctors keeping a watchful eye on a patient. But "If the heart is big and has a severely weakened valve, the valve will be repaired or replaced."

Stroke

When a blood vessel responsible for transporting oxygen and blood to the brain ruptures or gets blocked by a blood clot, a stroke occurs. The nerve cells in the brain die within minutes and the parts of the body that they control no longer function. Some effects of stroke can be permanentóit depends upon how many cells have stopped working.

When the blood vessel blockage is temporary, it's called a transient ischemic attack (TIA), or mini-stroke. Some 15 percent of major strokes are preceded by a TIA, so seek medical attention immediately if you experience stroke symptoms. These consist of sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on just one side of the body, sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding, sudden trouble walking, a loss of balance or coordination, and sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.

Luckily, stroke, the number five cause of death and a top cause of long-term disability in America, is often preventable. Controlling blood pressure, not smoking, and eating a healthy diet low in saturated fat all help prevent stroke.

Venous Thromboembolism

In this condition, also called deep vein thrombosis, the blood thickens and causes a clot to form, explains Friedman. Risk factors for this condition include having cancer, having an arrhythmia, or even being in a car accident, which can cause the veins to become "distorted," Friedman says.

If one of your legs or arms feels hot and swollen, or itís painful to move it, seek medical attention, Friedman advises. The doctor may order a sonogram to look at the way the blood is flowing, and if an occlusion [blockage] is seen on the ultrasound, a blood thinner may be prescribed. "If the doctor is really concerned, he may order further X-ray or CAT scan imaging," Friedman says.

Treatment for venous thromboembolism is usually oral blood thinners, says Kwon. "And the doctor will often try to determine if there is an underlying condition that predisposes the patient to this condition," she says. "Genetic diseases or a malignancy [cancer] could predispose a person to a venous thromboembolism."

David A. Friedman, MD, reviewed this article.

Sources

Deborah Kwon, MD. Email interview on March 22, 2016.

David A. Friedman, MD. Phone interview on March 14, 2016.

Jose Taveras, MD. Phone interview on March 16, 2016.

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