Many cardiac conditions require clinical care by a physician or other heart care professional. Listed in the directory below are some of these conditions, for which we have provided a brief overview.
Angina pectoris (or simply angina) is recurring chest pain or discomfort that happens when some part of the heart does not receive enough blood and oxygen. Angina is a symptom of coronary artery disease (CAD), which occurs when arteries that carry blood to the heart become narrowed and blocked due to atherosclerosis or a blood clot.
An arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm. Some arrhythmias can cause problems with contractions of the heart chambers by:
- Not allowing the ventricles (lower chambers) to fill with an adequate amount of blood because an abnormal electrical signal is causing the heart to pump too fast or too slow.
- Not allowing a sufficient amount of blood to be pumped out to the body because an abnormal electrical signal is causing the heart to pump too slowly or too irregularly.
- Not allowing the top chambers to work properly.
In any of these situations, the body's vital organs may not receive enough blood to meet their needs.
Atherosclerosis is a slow, progressive disease that may start as early as childhood. However, the disease has the potential to progress rapidly.
Atherosclerosis is a type of thickening or hardening of the arteries caused by a buildup of plaque in the inner lining of an artery. Plaque is made up of deposits of fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium, and fibrin, and can develop in medium or large arteries. The artery wall becomes thickened and stiff.
Normally, the heart pumps in a well-timed fashion. The two upper chambers (atria) contract first followed by the two lower chambers (ventricles). This coordinated pumping is powered by the heart's own electrical system and efficiently pumps blood out to the body and back. In atrial fibrillation (AF), a type of arrhythmia, the electrical signals fire rapidly and chaotically. This causes the atria to quiver instead of contracting normally. Many of the signals also reach the ventricles, causing them to contract irregularly too. This results in a fast and irregular heart rhythm.
Over time, this can weaken the heart and lead to heart failure. Plus, when the atria do not contract effectively, the blood may pool in the heart. This increases the risk that a blood clot may form and travel to the brain causing a stroke. People with AF are 5 to 7 times more likely to have a stroke than people who do not have AF.
AF is more common in people who are over 65 and is seen more often in men than women.
Cardiac sarcoma is a rare type of tumor that occurs in the heart. Cardiac sarcoma is a primary malignant (cancerous) cardiac tumor. Tumors are considered to be either primary tumors or secondary tumors. A primary cardiac tumor is one that starts in the heart. A secondary cardiac tumor starts somewhere else in the body and then spreads to the heart. In general, primary tumors of the heart are rare, and most are benign (noncancerous).
Cardiomyopathy describes any disorder that affects the heart muscle, causing the heart to lose its ability to pump blood effectively. In some instances, the heart rhythm also becomes disturbed and leads to arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). There may be multiple causes of cardiomyopathy, including viral infections and certain medications. Often, the exact cause of the muscle disease is never found.
Congenital Heart Defects
When the heart or blood vessels near the heart do not develop normally before birth, a condition called congenital heart defect occurs (congenital means "existing at birth"). Congenital heart defects occur in close to 1 percent of infants. Most young people with congenital heart defects are living into adulthood now.
In most cases, the cause is unknown. Sometimes a viral infection in the mother causes the condition. The condition can be genetic (hereditary). Some congenital heart defects are the result of alcohol or drug use during pregnancy.
Most heart defects either cause an abnormal blood flow through the heart, or obstruct blood flow in the heart or vessels (obstructions are called stenoses and can occur in heart valves, arteries, or veins). A hole between two chambers of the heart is an example of a very common type of congenital heart defect.
Coronary Heart Disease
Coronary heart disease, or coronary artery disease (CAD), is characterized by the accumulation of fatty deposits along the innermost layer of the coronary arteries. The fatty deposits may develop in childhood and continue to thicken and enlarge throughout the life span. This thickening, called atherosclerosis, narrows the arteries and can decrease or block the flow of blood to the heart.
The American Heart Association estimates that over 16 million Americans suffer from coronary artery disease — the number-one killer of both men and women in the U.S.
Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction)
A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when one or more regions of the heart muscle experience a severe or prolonged lack of oxygen caused by blocked blood flow to the heart muscle. The blockage is often a result of atherosclerosis—a buildup of plaque composed of fat deposits, cholesterol, and other substances. When a plaque ruptures, a blood clot quickly forms. The blood clot is the actual cause of the heart attack.
If the blood and oxygen supply is cut off, muscle cells of the heart begin to suffer damage and start to die. Irreversible damage begins within 30 minutes of blockage. The result is dysfunction of the heart muscle in the area affected by the lack of oxygen or cell death.
Heart failure, also called congestive heart failure, is a condition in which the heart cannot pump enough oxygenated blood to meet the needs of the body's other organs. The heart keeps pumping, but not as efficiently as a healthy heart. Usually, the heart's diminished capacity to pump reflects a progressive, underlying condition.
Heart Valve Diseases
Heart valve disorders can arise from two main types of malfunctions:
- Regurgitation (or leakage of the valve). The valve(s) does not close completely, causing the blood to flow backward through the valve. The heart is forced to pump more blood on the next beat, making it work harder.
- Stenosis (or narrowing of the valve). The valve(s) opening becomes narrowed, limiting the flow of blood out of the ventricles or atria. The heart is forced to pump blood with increased force in order to move blood through the narrowed or stiff (stenotic) valve(s).
High Blood Pressure / Hypertension
Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against the artery walls. The force is generated with each heartbeat as blood is pumped from the heart into the blood vessels. The size and elasticity of the artery walls also affect blood pressure. Each time the heart beats (contracts and relaxes), pressure is created inside the arteries.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, directly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. With high blood pressure, the arteries may have an increased resistance against the flow of blood, causing the heart to pump harder to circulate the blood. Usually, high blood pressure has no signs or symptoms. However, you can know if your blood pressure is high by having it checked regularly by your health care provider.
Mitral Valve Prolapse
Mitral valve prolapse, also known as click-murmur syndrome, Barlow's syndrome, balloon mitral valve, or floppy valve syndrome, is the bulging of one or both of the mitral valve flaps (leaflets) into the left atrium during the contraction of the heart. One or both of the flaps may not close properly, allowing the blood to leak backward (regurgitation). This regurgitation may result in a murmur (abnormal sound in the heart due to turbulent blood flow). Mitral regurgitation (backward flow of blood), if present at all, is generally mild. It is estimated that mitral valve prolapse occurs in around 3 percent of the population.
All murmurs are analyzed for pitch, frequency, and duration. They are also graded according to how loud they are (on a scale of 1 to 6 with 1 being very faint and 6 being very loud).
Types of murmurs include:
- Systolic murmur. This occurs during a heart muscle contraction. Systolic murmurs are divided into ejection murmurs (due to blood flow through a narrowed vessel or irregular valve) and regurgitant murmurs (backward blood flow into one of the chambers of the heart).
- Diastolic murmur. This occurs during heart muscle relaxation between beats. Diastolic murmurs are due to a narrowing (stenosis) of the mitral or tricuspid valves, or regurgitation of the aortic or pulmonary valves.
- Continuous murmur. This occurs throughout the cardiac cycle.
Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, the thin sac (membrane) that surrounds the heart. There is a small amount of fluid between the inner and outer layers of the pericardium. Often, when the pericardium becomes inflamed, the amount of fluid between its two layers increases. This is called a pericardial effusion. If the amount of fluid increases quickly, the effusion can impair the ability of the heart to function properly. This complication of pericarditis is called cardiac tamponade and is a serious emergency.
Rheumatic Heart Disease
Rheumatic heart disease is a condition in which permanent damage to heart valves is caused by rheumatic fever. The heart valve is damaged by a process that generally begins with an infection caused by streptococcus bacteria. In some cases, strep throat or scarlet fever can eventually progress to rheumatic fever.