Heart is the most vital part of the human body, and akin to any other part, it needs oxygen and nutrients from the blood to perform its functions in a healthy manner. The vessels responsible for supplying oxygenated blood to the heart are the coronary arteries. Cholesterol deposits, also known as plaque, can build up within these arteries and make them narrow, thus affecting the blood supply to the heart and causing most heart problems including angina or chest pain. The plaque can also rupture and form a blood clot, completely blocking blood flow to a particular part of the heart.
The major types of heart diseases
Arrhythmia: This occurs when the heart beats are erratic. It can either be harmless or very dangerous. It can increase chances of other heart problems.
Cardiomyopathy: This is a disorder in which the heart muscles do not function normally.
Congenital heart disease: This refers to the disorders in the organ that are present at birth and may be diagnosed later, immediately after birth or much later in life.
Congestive heart failure: This is a condition that can result from any heart-related problem that makes it difficult for the organ to pump sufficient blood through the body. The result is that many of the body’s organs are then deprived of essential blood supply.
Coronary artery disease (CAD) or coronary heart disease (CHD): This most common disease causes the arteries to harden and constrict (usually as a result of plaque build-up), thus restricting blood flow to the organ. CAD is also the leading cause of angina and attacks.
Hypertensive heart diseases: This is caused by high blood pressure.
Inflammatory heart disease: An inflammation of the organ’s muscles and/or the tissue surrounding them.
Valvular heart disease: This term refers to any disease involving one or more of the organ’s valves.
Major risk factors and symptoms
The primary factors associated with heart diseases are smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, a family history of the condition, and obesity.
Chest pain accompanied by shortness of breath is generally a sign of angina. The pain is experienced at the back of the breast bone, and from there the pain radiates to the jaw and along the arms. Breathlessness and sweating will often occur simultaneously with this pain. However, angina may show other signs and may not be restricted to chest pain alone. It may show up as a pain in the shoulders, back, upper abdomen, and may cause nausea or indigestion.
The pain may be different in older people, women, and people suffering from diabetes. In these cases, general fatigue and difficulty in carrying out routine tasks like simple walking or climbing stairs may be a warning sign. The symptoms of angina progress gradually as the artery narrows and blood flow to the heart reduces. Frequently people simply experience it as a discomfort, failing to associate it with pain, and ignore it completely until they suffer an attack.
Diagnosis and tests
When a heart disease is suspected, the doctor will begin the procedure of diagnosis by recording a detailed history of the person’s lifestyle, habits, general constitution, other medical conditions, etc. The type of tests recommended will depend of the person’s proneness to angina. Catheterization can establish the presence of plaque, and the extent to which it is blocking blood flow in an artery, but not everyone needs this invasive technique to be applied. Stress tests and electrocardiograms (ECG) may be sufficient to diagnose the condition.
Stress testing involves the monitoring of the amount of stress that a patient can endure. A treadmill can be used to conduct it, but it may be misleading as some people who cannot work out on a treadmill can still undergo cardiac stress testing if they are using intravenous medications which can make the heart endure more stress. In any case, stress test has to be carried out under strict medical supervision as over-doing it can lead to angina, breathlessness, erratic heart rhythms or even a heart attack.
ECG is another non-invasive technique in which heart disease can be detected by measuring the electrical impulses that it generates. These impulses can be measured on the surface of the skin by attaching special equipment to the arms and legs. Normal muscles will reflect the electrical impulses normally, but if the muscles are affected by poor blood supply, an indication that the heart is functioning poorly or pumping too little blood, that too will be reflected in the ECG graph.
Prevention and treatment
To prevent heart diseases one needs to cultivate a healthy lifestyle from early stages in life. Regular exercise, a nutritious diet, abstaining from smoking altogether can go a long way in preventing it. One aspirin daily can also decrease the risk but it needs to be started strictly on a doctor’s recommendation.
However, if the presence of plaque is detected in the artery and is significantly blocking the passage of blood through it, an angioplasty, or ballooning, may have to be carried out. In this procedure a metal stent, which keeps the artery dilated to allow blood to flow freely is inserted at the site of the blockage to prevent the artery from constricting again. After angioplasty, a patient is usually put on anti-platelet medication to prevent blood clot formation. As a last resort, or if there are multiple blockages, a coronary artery bypass surgery may have to be conducted.