7 Complications of Heart Disease

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

Heart disease complications develop when the heart is getting less blood than it needs. This often occurs when plaque blocks blood vessels. Here’s a look at some of the problems that can develop:

1. Angina

Angina is chest pain caused by heart disease. It is not the same as a heart attack, but it can be a warning sign. It also can limit your activities and change your lifestyle. Angina feels like a squeezing pressure in your chest. You may also feel pain in your neck, shoulder or jaw. Stable angina is the most common type. It occurs when your heart works harder than usual. Stress or physical activity can trigger stable angina.

2. Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heartbeat. It might come and go. Your heart may beat rapidly. It also may beat in an irregular pattern. Symptoms can include:

Atrial fibrillation increases your chance of having a stroke. That's because blood clots are more likely to form in your heart during atrial fibrillation. The clots can then leave the heart and block blood flowing to the brain. Treatments may include medication, coronary artery bypass surgery and other operations to help control heart rate and rhythm. 

3. Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack. Your heart actually stops beating during cardiac arrest. You would have no pulse. This means no blood would flow to your brain and other organs. Cardiac arrest causes a person to pass out within seconds. If you think someone is in cardiac arrest, call 911 right away. Next, start hands-only CPR. This can reverse cardiac arrest if started right away. Also, use an automated external defibrillator if one is available.

4. Heart Attack

A heart attack occurs when a coronary artery becomes so blocked that blood cannot reach part of your heart muscle. You may have very bad chest pain, cold sweats, and trouble breathing. A heart attack can occur suddenly or get slowly worse over many hours. Your heart does not stop beating during a heart attack. Early emergency treatment is the key to preventing severe heart damage. Call 911 right away if you think you or someone you are with is having a heart attack.

5. Heart Failure

Heart disease can lead to a gradual weakening of your heart. This is heart failure. As your heart weakens, it has a harder time pumping blood out to your body. This causes blood to back up into your lungs. Also, fluid will start to build up in other parts of your body. Heart failure is one of the main reasons people are admitted to a hospital. It also is a leading cause of death of people older than 60. Symptoms can include:

Once heart failure starts, it is not reversible. However, treatment with medicine and lifestyle changes can help. Heart transplant surgery may be an option if treatment is not working.

6. Pulmonary Edema

Pulmonary edema causes fluid to fill up your lungs. Heart failure is the most common cause. Your heart is weak and cannot pump blood like it should. So, blood backs up into the blood vessels in your lungs. That causes fluid to leak out. Symptoms can include:

  • Extreme shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Blue nails and lips
  • Coughing that produces a small amount of blood

Pulmonary edema is a medical emergency. Treatment includes medication to lower blood pressure and reduce fluid.

7. Stroke

The type of stroke caused by heart disease is an ischemic stroke. Another name for it is a cerebral embolism. This means a blood clot formed in your heart, then broke free and traveled to your brain. Once a clot lodges in your brain, it cuts off the blood supply. This causes a stroke. Common signs are sudden weakness on one side of your body, a drooping face, and difficulty speaking. A stroke is a medical emergency. Call 911 right away.

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  1. Heart Disease Facts, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Aug 28, 2013. http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm.
  2. What is Cardiovascular Disease (Heart Disease)? American Heart Association, December 28, 2011. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Caregiver/Resources/WhatisCardiovascularDisease/What-is-Cardiovascular....
  3. What Is Angina? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, June 1, 2011. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/angina/.
  4. Heart Attack or Sudden Cardiac Arrest: How Are They Different? American Heart Association, May 14, 2013. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/MyHeartandStrokeNews/Heart-Attack-or-Sudden-Cardiac-Ar....
  5. Ischemic Stroke (Clots), American Stroke Association, November 7, 2013. http://www.strokeassociation.org/STROKEORG/AboutStroke/TypesofStroke/IschemicClots/Ischemic-Strokes-....
  6. Congestive Heart Failure, Johns Hopkins Medicine. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/heart_vascular_institute/conditions_treatments/conditions/congestive_...
  7. Pulmonary Edema, University of Maryland Medical Center, May 7, 2013. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/condition/pulmonary-edema.
  8. Atrial Fibrillation, Johns Hopkins Medicine. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/heart_vascular_institute/conditions_treatments/conditions/atrial_fibr...
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jul 30
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