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Are You Heading for a Heart Ache?

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Are You Heading for a Heart Ache?

Any country western singer (or cardiologist) will tell you that matters of the heart are complicated! While our Cooper Clinic Cardiologist, Nina Radford, MD, may not be able to explain the complexities of a cheating heart, she can give us the lowdown on symptoms of an unhealthy heart. 

To try to simplify a discussion about the cardiovascular system, Dr. Radford likes to break heart muscle function into four key areas: the plumbing system, electrical system, pumping function and valves. As you will read below, even with this approach, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact source of trouble because many of the symptoms resulting from disease in one area can overlap with symptoms of disease in another area. That is why it is important to see your health care provider to fully evaluate any of the symptoms listed below.

The Plumbing System

The plumbing system refers to the "coronary arteries” or blood vessels that feed the heart muscle. When these arteries become significantly blocked with plaque buildup, very serious symptoms can develop: pain or pressure in the chest, jaw, back, neck shoulders or arms, shortness of breath, palpitations, nausea, sweating, weakness, fatigue or dizziness. Sometimes these symptoms can be mistaken for indigestion or the flu.

If these symptoms are short lived (5-10 minutes) and occur with exertion or stress, they may be diagnosed as “angina.” New onset of angina is often a warning sign of big trouble ahead. When these symptoms persist, a full blown heart attack or sudden death can occur. 

Warning: You may be heading for a heart ache! Problems with the plumbing system and the symptoms listed above require urgent evaluation. 

The Electrical System

The electrical system refers to the network of specialized pathways in the heart that create each heartbeat and regulate heart rate. Symptoms of an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmias) may include: palpitations (feeling a skipped or irregular heartbeats), pounding heart beat (which can be fast), dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue or chest pain.

Warning: You may be heading for a heart ache! Problems with the electrical system can result in a few harmless extra beats or a rapid heartbeat which can results in fainting or sudden death. Any irregular or fast heart beats which result in symptoms like shortness of breath or fainting need to be evaluated urgently. 

The Valve System

The valves in the heart open and close to ensure efficiency in pumping function (so blood moves forward instead of backwards). Significantly narrowed or leaky valves can cause problems with the electrical system or problems with the pumping function which in turn can cause some of the symptoms described above. Sometimes significant problems with heart valves are suggested by an abnormal physical examination (heart murmur), which can only be detected by your health care provider. 

Warning: You may be heading for a heart ache! Problems with the valves may result in symptoms or may result in a change in your physical examination (in the absence of severe symptoms) which is why an annual examination is important.

The Pumping Function

The pumping function of the heart refers to the ability of the main pumping chamber of the heart (left ventricle) to pump blood through the body. The pumping function of the heart can be impaired due to problems with the plumbing system, the electrical system, valve system or can be impaired due to problems with the heart muscle itself. Symptoms caused by failing heart muscle, or “heart failure” may include: shortness of breath with activity or at rest (worse when lying flat), coughing, rapid weight gain, swelling in feet and ankles, dizziness, fatigue or weakness, palpitations, nausea or chest pain. 

Warning: You may be heading for a heart ache! Symptoms of heart failure may be due to serious underlying disease of the plumbing, valves, muscle or electrical systems and ought to be evaluated by urgently.   

Importance of Regular Health Screenings

There has been a lot in the news that the annual examination is not useful and that patients should only see their health care providers if they have significant symptoms. Unfortunately this puts the responsibility on the patient to try to figure out whether symptoms are serious. 

Are you short of breath chasing your grandchildren because you are overweight and do not exercise or because you have pump problems? Is there a burning in your chest because you just ate a chili dog or because you walked up two flights of stairs at the football stadium and have plumbing problems? If you trust your health to a blog on the internet or advice from a neighber, you could be heading for a heart ache. Trust your health care provider to review symptoms and changes in your physical examination at your annual examination.  

Article provided by Cooper Aerobics Marketing and Communications.