Heart disease (cardiovascular disease) can lead to heart damage, resulting in symptoms like chest pain and a rapid heartbeat. This umbrella term refers to several conditions, such as coronary artery disease (CAD) and heart failure, which affect the heart and blood vessels.

The exact cause of heart disease depends on the specific condition you have. Risk factors generally include smoking tobacco and having high blood pressure.

A healthcare provider will likely work with a cardiologist (who specializes in the heart) to create a treatment plan that’s right for your condition, symptoms, and overall health. Treatment options for heart disease may include medications, surgeries, and lifestyle changes.

Heart disease refers to several heart conditions, which include but are not limited to:

  • Arrhythmia: This condition occurs when you have an abnormal heart rhythm. Your heartbeat may either be too fast, too slow, or just beat abnormally.
  • Cardiomyopathy: This occurs when the heart muscle becomes enlarged, thick, rigid, or scarred. This condition can make it increasingly difficult for the heart to supply blood to your organs. It may eventually result in heart weakness, irregular heartbeat, or heart failure.
  • Cerebrovascular disease: These are health conditions that impair blood flow. Cerebrovascular disease can include embolism (a blockage in an artery), stenosis (narrowed blood vessels), thrombosis (blood clot).
  • Congenital heart defect: This is a birth defect that affects infants and occurs if there’s a problem in development during pregnancy.
  • Coronary artery disease (CAD): This is the most common type of heart disease. Plaque build-up in the arteries causes CAD. This build-up can narrow the arteries (atherosclerosis), making it difficult for blood to pump as efficiently as normal.
  • Heart failure: You can have heart failure when your heart doesn’t pump the right amount of blood your body needs to function. It does not mean your heart has stopped beating.
  • Heart valve diseases: This group of conditions affects your heart valves. There are two types: stenosis and regurgitation. Heart valve disease can occur when there’s a dysfunction in the way your blood flows.
  • Infective endocarditis: This infection in the lining of the heart and valves can happen when bacteria enter the bloodstream.
  • Myocardial infarction: This is the clinical name for heart attack. A heart attack happens when blood stops flowing to the heart, causing the death or damage of the heart muscle. It’s an emergency that requires immediate medical attention.
  • Pericarditis: Damage to your pericardium (a membrane that surrounds the heart) can lead to this condition.
  • Peripheral arterial disease: This condition can happen when your arteries become narrow, making it hard for blood to flow to and from your heart.
  • Pulmonary hypertension: Hypertension is the clinical term for high blood pressure. Pulmonary hypertension happens if the blood pressure in arteries in the lungs is too high.
  • Stroke: There are two types of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic. An ischemic stroke occurs when there’s a blockage in the blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to your brain. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs if a blood vessel bursts within the brain.

Heart disease symptoms can vary depending on the condition you have. It’s not always easy to know you have heart disease, as symptoms can sometimes go unnoticed.

Reach out to a healthcare provider if you experience:

  • Angina
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Heart palpitations or rapid heart rate
  • Indigestion
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain or tightness in your upper back, neck, jaw, or shoulders
  • Shortness of breath, particularly while being active
  • Sleep problems
  • Water retention in your arms, legs, or stomach

Many of these symptoms can be related to other conditions. It’s still good practice to get checked out by a healthcare provider to rule out these conditions or get you started on heart disease treatment if needed.

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking are the biggest causes of heart disease. Each of these factors can increase your risk of plaque build-up, which can cause the blood vessels to narrow. This restricts blood flow, which leads to heart damage.

Other types of heart disease, including valvular and congenital disease, have different causes. Factors like age and infections can increase the risk of valvular disease. It’s unclear what causes congenital disease, but genetics likely play a role.

Risk Factors

Some health conditions also put you at risk for heart disease. Diabetes makes you twice as likely to have a stroke as someone with normal blood sugar levels.

Other risk factors include:

  • Consuming too much alcohol
  • Eating a diet high in fat, sugars, or processed foods
  • Living a sedentary lifestyle with little to no exercise
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Obesity
  • Stress

Having one type of heart disease can also lead to other heart problems. CAD or cardiomyopathy, for example, may lead to heart failure, especially if these conditions are not treated.

Experiencing heart disease symptoms and going in for an appointment for testing can be scary. It’s important to know that a care team can offer treatments that reduce symptoms and improve your condition.

A healthcare provider will ask about your medical and family history and conduct a physical exam. This can help them move forward with the diagnostic process and learn what tests to order to confirm or rule out a diagnosis.

A care team may use a combination of tests before giving you an official heart disease diagnosis. Several tests may diagnose heart disease, such as:

  • Blood tests: Several blood tests can measure your risk of heart disease, including checking for specific heart-related blood proteins, cholesterol levels, and inflammation.
  • Cardiac catheterization: This procedure looks at your blood vessels and heart valves. A healthcare provider will insert a catheter (small tube) into a blood vessel in your arm, groin, or neck. The thin tube connects to your heart to get a better understanding of your heart health. This procedure generally includes a coronary angiogram, which uses a special dye and X-ray images to check for signs of plaque build-up in your arteries. 
  • Cardiac CT scan: A healthcare provider may use this test to take pictures and 3-D models of your heart and blood vessels. A cardiac CT scan can assess the amount of calcium build-up in the artery walls. This test is most often used to diagnose CAD or heart valve diseases.
  • Chest X-ray: This scan also takes pictures of the inside of your chest and can diagnose heart failure.
  • Echocardiography: This test takes a sonogram of your heart. The results can show a healthcare provider how well your heart chambers and valves function. 
  • Electrocardiogram: This test, commonly called an EKG or ECG, examines your heart’s electrical signals and rhythm.
  • Imaging tests: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET) are examples of imaging tests. These tests take pictures of your heart and blood vessels and help a healthcare provider take a closer look at blood flow. An MRI also examines characteristics of the heart tissue.
  • Stress test: A healthcare provider will hook you up to an EKG machine. They will ask you to walk on a treadmill or use a stationary bike. This test assesses how well your heart works while physically active.

Treatment options depend on the type of heart disease you have and the severity of your condition. A care team will work with you to develop a treatment plan that’s best for you.

They will usually advise a combination of lifestyle changes and medications. You may need to have surgery or enter a cardiac rehabilitation program in some cases.

Lifestyle Changes

The same habits that help prevent heart disease also treat it. A care team may recommend:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet (e.g., a plant-based diet or low-fat diet)
  • Exercising regularly
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Limiting alcohol
  • Managing a weight that is right for you
  • Quitting smoking
  • Reducing stress

Medications

The exact medication a healthcare provider prescribes depends on your heart condition and if you have any other co-occurring illnesses. Some of the most common options include:

  • Aspirin: Can prevent blood clots, which may cause a heart attack or ischemic stroke
  • ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers: Help lower blood pressure
  • Diuretics: Gets rid of excess fluid in the body
  • Metformin: Decrease your blood sugar if you have diabetes
  • Nitrates or ranolazine: Treat chest pain
  • Statins: Lowers cholesterol

Surgery

You may require heart surgery, depending on your condition. The main goals of surgery are generally to improve blood flow to your heart or open up blocked arteries.

Examples of heart surgeries include:

  • Angioplasty: Opens up a blocked artery
  • Artificial heart valve surgery: Replaces a damaged heart valve with a healthy valve
  • Atherectomy: Removes plaque build-up in your arteries
  • Bypass surgery: Reroutes blood vessels to improve oxygen and blood flow in your heart
  • Catheter ablation: Helps fix an irregular heartbeat
  • Heart transplant: Uses an organ donation to replace your heart with a new one

A care team may also recommend procedures that insert medical devices into your body. These include a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD).

Cardiac Rehabilitation

A cardiac rehabilitation program may help speed your recovery and decrease the risk of future complications if you’ve recently had a heart attack, heart failure, or heart surgery. Cardiac rehabilitation involves:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Going to counseling to understand stress management techniques
  • Learning how to better manage your condition
  • Losing weight if necessary
  • Lowering your blood pressure or cholesterol
  • Managing other health conditions (e.g., diabetes or depression)
  • Quitting smoking

A healthy lifestyle helps prevent heart disease. Some changes you can incorporate into your daily life include:

  • Eating a healthy diet: Consume a plant-based diet. Eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lean proteins. Avoid highly processed and high-sugar foods. Cut down on fatty cuts of meat that tend to be higher in saturated fat. Incorporate more fiber in your meals. Limit sodium to no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day.
  • Quitting smoking: Don’t start smoking. Now is the time to quit if you do smoke. Quitting smoking is hard, but a healthcare provider can help come up with a plan to help you. Being exposed to secondhand smoke can also damage your heart.
  • Stay active: Make time for daily exercise. Avoid being inactive for long periods of time. Try to move around if you have a job that requires you to sit all day. Aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or try 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. Find a workout you like that can help you stick to a routine. Remember that active hobbies, like gardening, also count as exercise.
  • Watching your numbers: Keep track of your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

Heart disease refers to several conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. Symptoms can vary based on your specific condition, but most people have chest pain, a rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing.

Getting tested if you notice changes in your heart health or experience symptoms is a good idea. A healthcare provider can use a combination of blood, imaging, and physical tests to confirm a diagnosis and rule out other conditions.

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