Heart disease refers to a wide range of conditions that affect the heart. The most common heart conditions include coronary artery disease, congenital defects, arrhythmias and diseases of blood vessels that serve the heart. Each of these conditions can be further subcategorized, too.
Additionally, serious complications can arise as a result of heart disease, which includes but is not limited to:
- Heart attack – When a clot obstructs blood flow to the heart, it requires immediate medical intervention to prevent the heart muscle from being irreparably damaged.
- Aneurysm – This occurs when there is a bulge in a weakened area of an artery wall. A burst aneurysm can cause life-threatening internal bleeding.
- Peripheral artery disease – Patients with atherosclerosis can develop peripheral artery disease, a condition that limits blood flow to the extremities.
- Heart failure – This is one of the most common complications of heart disease and occurs when the heart isn’t able to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.
- Cardiac arrest – This condition is usually caused by an arrhythmia and results in the sudden loss of heart function, consciousness and breathing.
Causes of Heart Disease
While certain factors can increase your risk of getting heart disease—leading an unhealthy lifestyle, having a family history of heart disease, using tobacco products, having a chronic autoimmune or inflammatory condition or having chronic kidney disease, to name a few—the causes of heart disease vary by the type of condition you have. For example:
- Coronary and peripheral artery disease can be caused by atherosclerosis (atherosclerosis is often the result of an unhealthy lifestyle).
- Arrhythmias can be caused by birth defects, genetic conditions, scarring of the heart muscle, certain medications, diabetes, drug abuse, excessive use of alcohol or caffeine, high blood pressure, tobacco use and stress. Coronary artery disease and valvar heart disease can also lead to arrhythmias.
- Valve disease is thought to be caused by rheumatic disease, aging, connective tissue disorders and infections.
Symptoms of Heart Disease
While the symptoms of heart disease can vary but the most common symptoms are:
- Angina (chest pain)
- Shortness of breath
- Chronic fatigue and weakness (especially in women)
- A racing heart
- Leg or arm pain or numbness
Diagnosis of Heart Disease
Diagnosis begins with a physical exam, during which your physician will listen to your heart, lungs and abdomen; assess your pulse in several areas of your body; learn about your symptoms and review your medical history.
If additional testing is recommended, it may include:
- Ambulatory monitoring (wearing a portable heart monitor for a period of time)
- Blood testing
- Chest X-rays
- An electrocardiogram
- An echocardiogram
- A cardiac CT scan or MRI
- Stress testing
- Cardiac catheterization
Treatment for Heart Disease
There are four primary treatments for heart disease:
- Lifestyle changes – Eating a healthier diet, stopping smoking, limiting your alcohol intake and getting more exercise can improve your condition.
- Medication – Depending on the type of heart disease you have, medication may be prescribed to control your symptoms.
- Medical procedures – Angioplasty, stent placement, ablation or another medical procedure may help with your symptoms.
- Open-heart surgery – For patients with severe heart disease, open-heart surgery like a heart transplant may be the appropriate course of action.