heart abnormalities

There are many diseases and conditions that affect the heart. As a group, heart disease is the leading cause of death the world over. In the United States, it is the most common cause of death for both men and women. According to the CDC, 1 in every 4 deaths is due to a heart condition. The most frequent type is coronary heart disease but there are many other types as well.

We know that the heart has valves, muscular walls, and vessels supplying it with oxygen and nutrition called coronary arteries. Any one of these structures can be afflicted by disease. The heart also has an electrical system that can become dysfunctional, giving rise to rhythm abnormalities (arrhythmias). Some heart conditions are present at birth and are known as congenital defects. By considering which structure they are affecting, we can categorize most of the heart diseases and conditions into the following types:

Let’s look into these in more detail, and also list some pertinent sources of information on the subject.

Coronary Heart Disease

Coronary arteries become thicker and narrower by a process known as atherosclerosis. This can reduce the heart’s blood supply. When oxygen demands are not met, ischemia will occur. Ischemia manifests as pain in the chest or angina. If an artery gets completely occluded with a clot, cardiac muscle will die. This is called infarction, commonly known as a heart attack.

Arrhythmias

Rhythm disturbances can range from irregularities of the heart rate such as bradycardia if too slow and tachycardia if too fast, irregular beats, to completely berserk rhythms such as flutter and fibrillation. Clinically, the spectrum extends from some arrhythmias that are fairly benign and can just be overlooked to those that are life-threatening and need urgent medical attention. Management strategies include drugs, defibrillators and pacemakers.

Valvular Heart Disease

Valves maintain unidirectional blood flow in the heart and when something goes wrong with them, different problems can arise. In stenosis, a valve is too stiff and narrow. It will not open wide enough causing obstruction to blood flow. During regurgitation, a valve is leaky and allows backflow of blood. Another condition is where a loose, weak valve will prolapse into the next chamber.

Rheumatic fever, an illness that may occur after throat infections, has a propensity to damage heart valves. Valvular heart disease is the result of rheumatic fever in so many cases, a distinct clinical entity rheumatic heart disease (RHD) deals specifically with the issue.

Heart Muscle Disease

The clinical term used for a disease that affects heart muscle is cardiomyopathy. An enlarged heart with weak walls is dilated cardiomyopathy. When the walls are abnormally thick, it’s hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (a cause of sudden death in athletes). These are the two chief forms of heart muscle disease. Cardiomyopathies can be the result of a variety of causes such as ischemia, hypertension, infections, toxins, and certain drugs. They could also be genetic in origin. In cases where no specific cause can be ascertained, the cardiomyopathy is termed idiopathic.

Congenital Defects

As regards birth defects, abnormalities involving the heart are very common. Causes of congenital heart malformations can be genetic or environmental. An example of the former is Down’s syndrome which often involves heart defects. The latter include some maternal illnesses and infections during pregnancy, drug abuse, alcoholism, smoking, and certain medications. However, in many cases, there is no apparent cause. Congenital defects can manifest as abnormal heart chambers or valves, or ‘holes’ in the heart. While some children may not require any treatment at all or just conservative management, others will require surgical intervention.

See also our page on heart disease in women for further discussion of abnormalities.