Heart Conditions

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What are heart conditions?

Heart conditions include a wide variety of diseases, disorders and conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. They can occur as an isolated problem or in combination with other heart conditions. Types of heart conditions include angina (brief, sharp attacks of chest pain), heart attack, atherosclerosis (buildup of plaque on the walls of the coronary arteries), heart failure, cardiovascular disease, and cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms). Other heart conditions include congenital heart defects (present at birth), cardiomyopathy (weakened or abnormal heart muscle and function), infections of the heart, and heart valve disorders.

Heart conditions are a leading cause of disease and death in the United States. Substantial numbers of people in the United States have common risk factors for heart conditions, including inactivity, obesity, high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, and diabetes.

Heart disease develops as the result of several causes. Heart defects present at birth (congenital) can cause cardiomyopathy and subsequent congestive cardiac failure. High blood pressure that runs in families is associated with coronary artery disease, and lifestyle factors such as smoking and obesity may lead to an aneurysm, which is a life-threatening bulging and weakening of the wall of an artery that can burst and cause severe hemorrhage. Fortunately, many heart conditions can be effectively prevented or treated with lifestyle changes, medications, and medical procedures if necessary. Following a heart-healthy diet, getting regular physical activity, and seeing your health care provider for regular preventive checkups are all ways you can reduce your risk of having a heart condition.

Symptoms of heart conditions vary depending on the specific conditions. Chest pain is a classic symptom of some heart conditions. However, some forms of heart conditions, such as atherosclerosis, may have no apparent symptoms until life-threatening complications develop. In other cases, symptoms may be mild or vague and include weakness, fatigue, dizziness, backache, or a feeling of indigestion. Females with myocardial infarction more often experience nausea rather than chest pain.

Left untreated, heart conditions may be serious, even life threatening. Blood clots can result in stroke, heart attack, or pulmonary embolism and heart attack may lead to heart damage or life-threatening arrhythmias. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as sweating and severe difficulty breathing, which may be combined with pale or blue lips, fast heart rate, chest pain or pressure, loss of consciousness, severe headache, or sudden numbness or weakness. Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for atherosclerosis but mild symptoms recur or are persistent, such as leg pain or chest pressure.

What are the symptoms of heart conditions?

Heart conditions cause dysfunction of the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs that may result in many different symptoms. The symptoms can vary in intensity among individuals.

Common symptoms of heart conditions

You may experience symptoms of heart conditions daily or just once in a while. At times, any of these heart symptoms can be severe:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
  • Pain, numbness, weakness or coldness in your legs or arms

Abnormal heartbeat symptoms of heart conditions

Symptoms of heart conditions caused by abnormal heartbeats (heart arrhythmias) include:

  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting or change in level of consciousness or lethargy
  • Fluttering sensation in your chest
  • Lightheadedness
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Slow heart rate (bradycardia)

Congenital heart defects symptoms of heart conditions

Less commonly, symptoms of heart conditions related to heart defects present at birth include:

  • Buildup of fluid in the heart or lungs
  • Clubbing of the fingers
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Pale gray or blue skin color (cyanosis)
  • Poor exercise tolerance (becoming short of breath or tiring quickly during exercise or activity) 
  • Shortness of breath during feedings, leading to poor weight gain in infants
  • Squatting posture
  • Swelling in the abdomen, legs, ankles, feet, hands, or areas around the eyes

Cardiomyopathy symptoms of heart conditions

Symptoms of heart conditions related to cardiomyopathy include:

  • Abdominal swelling, distension or bloating
  • Difficulty breathing with exertion or even at rest
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness and fainting
  • Fatigue
  • Irregular heartbeats that feel rapid, pounding or fluttering
  • Swelling of the legs, ankles and feet

Heart infection symptoms of heart conditions

Symptoms of heart conditions related to heart infections include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea) or rapid breathing (tachypnea)
  • Skin rash or unusual spots
  • Swelling of the feet or ankles

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, heart conditions can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Abdominal, pelvic, or lower back pain that can be severe
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Chest pain or pressure, which may radiate to the shoulder and arm
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Garbled or slurred speech or inability to speak
  • Loss of consciousness for even a brief moment
  • Numbness, weakness or paralysis of one side of the face
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Severe back pain
  • Shortness of breath or rapid breathing (tachypnea)
  • Worst headache of your life

What causes heart conditions?

Heart conditions have a variety of causes and risk factors. Heart conditions can result from irregularities in heart rhythm (arrhythmias), high blood pressure, heart defects present at birth (congenital), heart infection, malfunctioning heart valves, and cardiomyopathy. Left untreated, these conditions can lead to more serious diseases and conditions affecting many other organs in the body. Heart conditions occur most frequently in people who have multiple risk factors associated with heart disease.

What are the risk factors for heart conditions?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing heart conditions. Not all people with risk factors will get heart conditions. Risk factors for heart conditions include:

  • Age
  • Alcohol use
  • Diabetes
  • Elevated cholesterol levels in the blood
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Poor diet
  • Smoking

Reducing your risk of heart conditions

You may be able to lower your risk of heart conditions by:

  • Eating a healthful, low-cholesterol, low-fat, low-salt diet
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Keeping your cholesterol at a healthy level
  • Maintaining normal blood pressure
  • Monitoring your blood pressure
  • Quitting tobacco use
  • Taking your medications as instructed by your health care provider

How are heart conditions treated?

Treatment of heart conditions begins with seeking medical care from your health care provider. To determine if you have heart conditions, your health care provider will ask you to undergo diagnostic testing.

Lifestyle changes and drug therapy are the mainstays of treatment of most heart conditions. Certain heart diseases may be difficult to control, so it is important to follow your treatment plan for your heart conditions precisely and to take all of the medications as instructed to avoid serious complications.

Medications used to treat atherosclerosis

Categories of medications that are effective in the treatment of atherosclerosis (buildup of plaque in the arteries) include:

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, such as captopril (Capoten), enalapril (Vasotec), and lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril)

  • Angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs), such as losartan (Cozaar) and valsartan (Diovan)

  • Anticoagulant medications, such as warfarin (Coumadin)

  • Antiplatelet medications, such as aspirin and clopidogrel (Plavix)

  • Beta blockers, such as bisoprolol (Zebeta), carvedilol (Coreg), and metoprolol (Lopressor)

  • Digoxin (Lanoxin)

Medications used to treat congestive cardiac failure

Categories of medications that are effective in the treatment of congestive cardiac failure include:

  • Aldosterone antagonists, such as eplerenone (Inspra) and spironolactone (Aldactone)
  • Diuretics, such as bumetanide (Bumex) and furosemide (Lasix)

Medications used to treat angina

The treatment of angina (brief, sharp attacks of chest pain) varies depending upon the severity of symptoms and potential risk to the individual. Drug therapy alone is the most commonly used treatment for stable angina. Nitroglycerin is the mainstay of treatment for angina. Other types of medications used in the treatment of angina include:

  • Antihypertensive medications, which lower blood pressure

  • Antiplatelet medications, which prevent formation of blood clots

  • Beta-blockers, which reduce heart rate

  • Calcium channel blockers, which reduce the workload on heart muscle

  • Coronary vasodilators, which improve blood flow

  • Statins, which lower cholesterol

Medications used to treat high blood pressure

Many classes of medicine are effective in the treatment of high blood pressure including:

  • Alpha-blockers

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors

  • Angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs)

  • Beta-blockers

  • Calcium channel blockers

  • Diuretics

  • Renin inhibitors (Tekturna)

  • Vasodilators

Surgical procedures used to treat heart conditions

A number of surgical procedures are performed to help prevent the complications of atherosclerosis. Some of these are:

  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm repair (procedure to repair a weakened area in the wall of the aorta, the large artery that leads from the heart to the abdomen)

  • Angioplasty and stent placement (procedure to remove plaque and restore blood flow in clogged arteries)

  • Carotid artery surgery

  • Coronary artery bypass surgery (procedure that helps restore blood flow to the heart by routing the flow through transplanted arteries)

  • Heart valve replacement surgery

  • Implantation of defibrillator/pacemaker device to provide effective heart beat

  • Minimally invasive heart surgery

What you can do to improve your heart condition

In addition to following your health care provider’s instructions and taking all medications as prescribed, you can improve your heart conditions by:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet, including potassium and fiber, and drinking plenty of water

  • Exercising at least 30 minutes a day

  • Limiting alcohol consumption to one drink a day for women, two a day for men

  • Limiting the amount of sodium (salt) you eat (less than 1,500 mg per day)

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight

  • Quitting smoking

  • Reducing stress

What are the potential complications of heart conditions?

You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of heart conditions include:

  • Aortic aneurysm (life-threatening bulging and weakening of the wall of an artery that can burst [rupture] and cause severe hemorrhage) in the abdomen or chest

  • Congestive cardiac heart failure

  • Heart attack (myocardial infarction)

  • Life-threatening arrhythmias (irregular heart rate)

  • Pulmonary embolism

  • Stroke

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 10
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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