Everything You Need to Know About Heart Disease
Heart disease encompasses a wide range of cardiovascular problems. Several diseases and conditions fall under the umbrella of heart disease. Types of heart disease include:
- Arrhythmia. An arrhythmia is a heart rhythm abnormality.
- Atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a hardening of the arteries.
- Cardiomyopathy. This condition causes the heart’s muscles to harden or grow weak.
- Congenital heart defects. Congenital heart defects are heart irregularities that are present at birth.
- Coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is caused by the buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries. It’s sometimes called ischemic heart disease.
- Heart infections. Heart infections may be caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites.
The term cardiovascular disease may be used to refer to heart conditions that specifically affect the blood vessels.
Different types of heart disease may result in a variety of different symptoms.
Arrhythmias are abnormal heart rhythms. The symptoms you experience may depend on the type of arrhythmia you have — heartbeats that are too fast or too slow. Symptoms of an arrhythmia include:
- fluttering heart or racing heartbeat
- slow pulse
- fainting spells
- chest pain
Atherosclerosis reduces blood supply to your extremities. In addition to chest pain and shortness of breath, symptoms of atherosclerosis include:
- coldness, especially in the limbs
- numbness, especially in the limbs
- unusual or unexplained pain
- weakness in your legs and arms
Congenital heart defects
Congenital heart defects are heart problems that develop when a fetus is growing. Some heart defects are never diagnosed. Others may be found when they cause symptoms, such as:
- blue-tinged skin
- swelling of the extremities
- shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- fatigue and low energy
- irregular heart rhythm
Coronary artery disease (CAD)
CAD is plaque buildup in the arteries that move oxygen-rich blood through the heart and lungs. Symptoms of CAD include:
- chest pain or discomfort
- a feeling of pressure or squeezing in the chest
- shortness of breath
- feelings of indigestion or gas
Cardiomyopathy is a disease that causes the muscles of the heart to grow larger and turn rigid, thick, or weak. Symptoms of this condition include:
- swollen legs, especially ankles and feet
- shortness of breath
- pounding or rapid pulse
The term heart infection may be used to describe conditions such as endocarditis or myocarditis. Symptoms of a heart infection include:
- chest pain
- chest congestion or coughing
- skin rash
Heart disease is a collection of diseases and conditions that cause cardiovascular problems. Each type of heart disease is caused by something entirely unique to that condition. Atherosclerosis and CAD result from plaque buildup in the arteries. Other causes of heart disease are described below.
Causes of an abnormal heart rhythm include:
- heart defects, including congenital heart defects
- medications, supplements, and herbal remedies
- high blood pressure (hypertension)
- excessive alcohol or caffeine use
- substance use disorders
- stress and anxiety
- existing heart damage or disease
Congenital heart defect causes
This heart disease occurs while a baby is still developing in the womb. Some heart defects may be serious and diagnosed and treated early. Some may also go undiagnosed for many years.
Your heart’s structure can also change as you age. This can create a heart defect that may lead to complications and problems.
Several types of cardiomyopathy exist. Each type is the result of a separate condition.
- Dilated cardiomyopathy. It’s unclear what causes this most common type of cardiomyopathy, which leads to a weakened heart. It may be the result of previous damage to the heart, such as the kind caused by drugs, infections, and heart attack. It may also be an inherited condition or the result of uncontrolled blood pressure.
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This type of heart disease leads to a thicker heart muscle. It’s usually inherited.
- Restrictive cardiomyopathy. It’s often unclear what leads to this type of cardiomyopathy, which results in rigid heart walls. Possible causes may include scar tissue buildup and a type of abnormal protein buildup known as amyloidosis.
Heart infection causes
Bacteria, parasites, and viruses are the most common causes of heart infections. Uncontrolled infections in the body can also harm the heart if they’re not properly treated.
Your doctor may order several types of tests and evaluations to make a heart disease diagnosis. Some of these tests can be performed before you ever show signs of heart disease. Others may be used to look for possible causes of symptoms when they develop.
Physical exams and blood tests
The first thing your doctor will do is perform a physical exam and take an account of the symptoms you’ve been experiencing. Then they’ll want to know your family and personal medical history. Genetics can play a role in some heart diseases. If you have a close family member with heart disease, share this information with your doctor.
Blood tests are frequently ordered. This is because they can help your doctor see your cholesterol levels and look for signs of inflammation.
A variety of noninvasive tests may be used to diagnose heart disease.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). This test can monitor your heart’s electrical activity and help your doctor spot any irregularities.
- Echocardiogram. This ultrasound test can give your doctor a close picture of your heart’s structure.
- Stress test. This exam is performed while you complete a strenuous activity, such as walking, running, or riding a stationary bike. During the test, your doctor can monitor your heart’s activity in response to changes in physical exertion.
- Carotid ultrasound. To get a detailed ultrasound of your carotid arteries, your doctor may order this ultrasound test.
- Holter monitor. Your doctor may ask you to wear this heart rate monitor for 24 to 48 hours. It allows them to get an extended view of your heart’s activity.
- Tilt table test. If you’ve recently experienced fainting or lightheadedness when standing up or sitting down, your doctor may order this test. During it, you’re strapped to a table and slowly raised or lowered while they monitor your heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels.
- CT scan. This imaging test gives your doctor a highly-detailed X-ray image of your heart.
- Heart MRI. Like a CT scan, a heart MRI can provide a very detailed image of your heart and blood vessels.
If a physical exam, blood tests, and noninvasive tests aren’t conclusive, your doctor may want to look inside your body to determine what’s causing any unusual symptoms. Invasive tests may include:
- Cardiac catheterization and coronary angiography. Your doctor may insert a catheter into your heart through the groin and arteries. The catheter will help them perform tests involving the heart and blood vessels. Once this catheter is in your heart, your doctor can perform a coronary angiography. During a coronary angiography, a dye is injected into the delicate arteries and capillaries surrounding the heart. The dye helps produce a highly detailed X-ray image.
- Electrophysiology study. During this test, your doctor may attach electrodes to your heart through a catheter. When the electrodes are in place, your doctor can send electric pulses through and record how the heart responds.