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Understanding Heart Disease

By: Dr. Arnold Needleman

Doctor and patient

When it comes to heart disease the most effective treatment is preventing it in the first place. Most of us are familiar with the main risk factors of smoking, high blood pressure, a diet rich in cholesterol and saturated fats, obesity and inactivity. However, despite our best efforts in reducing these risk factors heart disease still occurs.

So how does a person know if they have heart disease? The most common manifestation of heart disease is angina, which is generally described as a crushing, squeezing, pressure-like ("someone sitting on my chest") deep chest pain. The cause is reduced blood flow through the coronary arteries, which supply oxygen to heart muscle. The pain may radiate into the arm, neck, jaw or back and give a sense of uneasiness. Sometimes the only symptom may be nausea, sweating, stomach pain ("indigestion") or shortness of breath. Often the symptoms are brought on by emotional distress or physical activity. Of note, certain groups of people may not have the "classic" presentation of chest discomfort. Diabetics may have alterations in nerve function that can blunt the feeling of chest pain. Women and elderly patients also may present with atypical forms of chest discomfort.

Doctor and patient

Many times heart disease can be silent and people may develop signs and symptoms related to a damaged heart such as shortness of breath or coughing while lying down and swelling of the legs as seen in congestive heart failure or palpitations, dizziness or passing out related to cardiac arrhythmias and valvular heart disease. An important group not to be overlooked is people with peripheral vascular disease, usually manifested as pain or weakness in the legs with walking, who may have heart disease that is asymptomatic. One last point is that sometimes coronary artery disease can be discovered at a very early stage by utilizing a CT scan to measure a coronary calcium score. Calcium is an indication of plaque buildup in the arteries.

People often ask, "How does a person know if they're having a heart attack?" The symptoms we discussed for angina are the same as in a heart attack only with angina they are short-lived and relieved by rest within a few minutes. With heart attacks they last much longer. The elderly are more likely to experience a general malaise, fatigue or confusion as the presenting symptoms of a heart attack.

The bottom line is only your physician can determine what is right for you, and don't delay if you're experiencing any of the aforementioned signs or symptoms.

The content on this website is for informative purposes only. It is not meant to treat or diagnose any symptoms or illnesses. Should you have any health related questions, you should contact your health care provider.

About the Author

Dr. Arnold Needleman photo Dr. Arnold Needleman

Born in Brooklyn , NY. Dr. Needleman received his undergraduate education at Harvard University. He then went to Medical School at the University of Miami and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. He is a member of the American College of Physicians, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine. Dr. Needleman has been with MCCI Medical Group since 1984.