While the heart is an amazing organ that works dependably for us throughout our lives, a number of things can go wrong with it, as well as with the network of blood vessels that supply oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to organs and tissues throughout your body. Read below for descriptions of common heart and vascular problems, including the following:
Your Heart is not Able to Get Enough Blood
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What is atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries? Dr. Gregory J. Dehmer explains.
- Heart attack – Like the other muscles in your body, the muscle of your heart requires oxygen and nutrients to remain strong and healthy and to function as it should. When blood flow through the vessels that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscles is cut off, either by a build-up of plaque or a blood clot, a “heart attack” occurs. Without oxygen, the heart muscle can be damaged or die. If the muscle is damaged, scar tissue may result, interfering with your heart’s ability to pump blood to the body. Read more about heart attack.
- Angina/chest pain – A feeling of pain, pressure, or other discomfort that may be felt in the chest, arm, back, jaw, or neck if the heart is not receiving enough oxygen because arteries that carry blood to the heart are partially blocked due to a build-up of plaque (fatty deposits in between the layers of the wall of the artery) in the artery walls. Angina symptoms may also include indigestion, nausea, cold sweats, and anxiety. Angina can be stable or unstable. Stable angina is less severe and often occurs during exercise or other vigorous activities, when the heart muscles require more oxygen. Unstable angina, or a heart attack, does not go away when you rest and requires immediate medical attention. Any chest pain you experience should be checked by a doctor. Learn more about angina.
- Coronary artery disease – Coronary artery disease occurs when the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle become narrowed and hardened due to the build-up of plaque. When blood vessels grow narrow and less elastic (a process called atherosclerosis) due to plaque build-up, blood flow is restricted and your heart is not able to get enough blood and oxygen. When this happens, you may feel chest pain (angina) or have a heart attack. Learn more about coronary artery disease.
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Your Heart is not Able to Pump as Well as it Should
- Heart failure – Heart failure occurs when your heart cannot supply enough blood to your body. Its inability to pump the normal amount of blood out may cause blood to “back up” in the lungs and vessels that carry blood into your heart – causing them to become congested. As it becomes less efficient as a pump, the heart grows larger so it can hold more blood – and it begins to wear out. To help compensate for the heart’s inability to circulate the blood as it should, other tissues begin to hold onto fluid, increasingly becoming congested. The lungs can fill with fluid, the legs and abdomen can swell and get puffy, and the liver can enlarge and not work efficiently. That’s why heart failure is often referred to as “congestive” heart failure.
- High blood pressure - Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the inside walls of your arteries. High blood pressure (hypertension) causes your heart to have to pump with greater than normal force to push blood through your blood vessels. Hypertension is when the blood pressure is higher than 140/90. Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80. The top number (systolic) shows the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats. The bottom number (diastolic) shows the pressure when your heart rests. Unfortunately, high blood pressure usually has no symptoms but can greatly increase a person’s risk of other events such as heart attack, stroke and kidney failure. Learn more about high blood pressure.
- Valve disease – Heart valves are structures in the heart that keep blood flowing in one direction and prevents it from backing up. If one or more of your valves fails to open or close as it should, the heart cannot pump blood as effectively as it needs. Valve problems can be the result of age, a congenital (birth) defect or an acquired disease, such as rheumatic fever. Learn more about heart valve problems.
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- Cardiomyopathy – A weakened heart muscle is referred to as a cardiomyopathy, which occurs when the heart’s muscle wall stretches or thickens and as a result fails to efficiently function as a pump. Cardiomyopathies can be the result of coronary artery disease but can also be caused by untreated hypertension; viral infections; drinking too much alcohol; certain other toxins, including certain chemotherapy agents; and other diseases that may deposit abnormal proteins or iron in the heart muscle. The cause may be unknown or it may be inherited from your family.
Your Heart May not Beat and Keep Rhythm as it Should
Irregular heartbeat – and a heartbeat that is too fast or too slow – may occur if the heart’s electrical system fails to function properly. An irregular beat can interfere with the heart’s ability to pump blood to the body with normal strength.
For more on the heart’s natural electrical system, see Your Heart.
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Your Blood Vessels May Narrow, Have Blockages, or Not Work Properly
Two types of blood vessels transport blood throughout the human body. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry blood rich in oxygen from the heart to other parts of the body. Veins are blood vessels that carry the oxygen depleted blood back to the heart, where it is pumped to the lungs for a fresh supply of oxygen.
|The arteries carry oxygenated blood throughout the body. Later, after the oxygen has been delivered, the veins return the blood back to the heart, where it is pumped to the lungs to pick up more oxygen.
The same disease process that clogs arteries of the heart can also block blood flow in arteries supplying the brain, arms, legs, and kidneys. If you have been diagnosed with blockages in one part of your body, you are at greater risk for narrowing in arteries elsewhere in your body.
- Carotid artery disease – Blockages in the carotid arteries, which supply your brain with oxygen, can lead to one form of stroke. Some strokes are caused by blood vessels that rupture and bleed into the brain. These are called hemorrhagic strokes. The two types of stroke require different treatments. Read more about carotid artery disease.
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD) and renal artery stenosis (RAS) – Aches, pains, cramps, numbness or muscle fatigue in the arms and legs during exercise may indicate that blood vessels supplying these body parts have become narrowed due to plaque build-up. This condition is called peripheral artery disease, or PAD. Although the aches and pains of PAD occur far from the heart, they may indicate that blood vessels throughout your body, including in the heart, are narrowing and restricting blood flow. Peripheral artery disease in the arteries leading to the kidneys is referred to as renal artery stenosis, or RAS. RAS can cause high blood pressure or kidney failure.
Leg vein problems (venous disease) – Veins carry blood from the arms, legs, and head back to the heart. If the veins in your legs are weakened or blocked, the blood may collect in your legs instead, causing discomfort and other problems such as blood clots and varicose veins. Blood clots can be a very serious problem, especially if one breaks loose and travels to the lung, blocking the lung artery, which is called pulmonary embolism (PE). PE can be fatal. Furthermore, it can damage your lungs and increase your risk of heart failure if you do not receive immediate medical attention.
Click here to learn more about leg vein problems.
Now is the time to speak with your doctor or cardiologist about cardiovascular disease. SecondsCount has developed a list a questions for you to print and take with you. Please, make an appointment, and find these important questions to print here.
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