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Heart Disease

Symptoms and Causes of Heart Disease

The causes of cardiovascular disease are varied. While many conditions are acquired due to factors such as smoking, diabetes and obesity, others are present at birth. Atherosclerosis — the buildup of fats and plaques in the blood vessels and coronary arteries — and electrical abnormalities in the heart are common causes.

People with heart disease can experience a wide variety of symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fluid retention

Some people may have no symptoms at all. Women with heart disease tend to experience symptoms differently than men.

Diagnosing Heart Disease

A variety of cardiovascular tests and studies can be used to evaluate and diagnose heart disease and look at overall cardiovascular health. These may include:

  • Blood tests for heart disease: The blood offers many clues about heart health.
  • Ultrasound imaging: High-frequency sound waves produce dynamic visual images of organs, tissue and blood flow inside the body.
  • Echocardiogram ("echo") tests: Echocardiography is a type of cardiac imaging that uses sound waves to create moving pictures of the heart and its blood vessels at rest and during exercise. Echocardiogram images may be used to diagnose, evaluate and monitor aneurysms. Types of echo tests include:
    • Transthoracic 2-D echocardiography (TTE): This common, non-invasive echo study is performed externally, outside of the chest. TTE can be performed using bubbles (to identify problems with cardiac blood flow) or DEFINITY® contrast (to further clarify imaging).
    • Transesophageal echocardiography (TEE): This minimally invasive study can help cardiologists get a closer look at cardiovascular structures if more information is needed after a TTE study.
  • Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and when appropriate, cardiac CT and MRI: These sophisticated non-invasive technologies provide doctors with highly detailed images of the inside of the body.
  • Diagnostic cerebral angiography: This minimally invasive imaging technology gives doctors a detailed view of the inside of the brain’s blood vessels.
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) diagnostics: This non-invasive test records the heart’s electrical activity.
  • Nuclear medicine testing: These outpatient diagnostic exams — typically stress testing and nuclear stress testing for heart patients — are used to evaluate the supply of blood to the heart muscle.
  • Treadmill stress test
  • Cardiac catheterization procedures: Minimally invasive tests in which a long, thin tube (catheter) is placed in an artery in the groin, wrist or arm and used — along with a tiny camera and x-rays — to evaluate how well the heart is functioning. Types of cardiac catheterization procedures include diagnostic left- and right-side cardiac catheterization and Swan-Ganz catheterization.

Treating Heart Disease

There are scores of treatments for heart disease, and they depend upon the type and severity of the condition. Heart disease treatments include:

  • Medical management: A wide variety of medications are used to treat cardiovascular disease. They include cholesterol-lowering stains, blood thinners, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, beta blockers and diuretics.
  • Cardiac catheterization: This minimally invasive procedure helps the cardiologist evaluate blood flow to the heart and the heart's pumping ability. It also can be used for angioplasty to open blocked arteries and to place stents to keep arteries open. (Find out how to prepare for a cardiac catheterization procedure.)
  • Coronary atherectomy: This minimally invasive procedure is used to remove plaque buildup from the coronary arteries.
  • Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI): This minimally invasive procedure can be used in high-risk patients with coronary artery disease who are not good candidates for coronary bypass surgery, as well as in patients with complete blockages of the coronary arteries (chronic total occlusions) and complex bifurcation occlusions of the artery.
  • Biventricular pacemaker: This implanted device improves the heart’s electrical timing and promotes a coordinated response between the ventricles.
  • Subcutaneous implantable defibrillator (S-ICD): This implanted device helps protect patients from sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), an abrupt loss of heart function.
  • Intra-aortic balloon pump (IABP): This temporary implanted device reduces the heart’s workload while patients await heart surgery or transplant.
  • Percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA): This minimally invasive procedure is used to clear blocked arteries and restore normal blood flow.

Make an Appointment

If you or someone you love is experiencing symptoms of cardiovascular disease, please make an appointment today with one of WakeMed’s experienced cardiovascular specialists.