Not much is scarier than the thought of having a heart attack. There’s a lot more that can go wrong with your ticker, though. And while it’s easy to assume diet and exercise are enough to protect you, not all heart problems are connected to your lifestyle. In many cases, factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol aren’t even the cause.
Every heart condition affects your heart’s ability to function normally. Here’s a closer look at what can go wrong, and the symptoms that signal your heart is suffering.
In a healthy body, arteries are hollow tube-like structures, sort of like pipes for your blood to flow through. If these “pipes” narrow or become clogged, it could result in a heart attack. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, atherosclerosis is the result of plaque buildup in your arteries, which are responsible for transporting oxygenated blood to your organs. Blood can’t flow as easily when your arteries are full of plaque — a substance mainly made up of calcium, cholesterol, and fat.
Medical professionals don’t know exactly what causes atherosclerosis, but common risk factors include smoking, poor diet, lack of physical activity, age, and family history of heart disease.
The pericardium is a protective membrane, sort of like the peel protecting the inside of an orange. Unfortunately, the layers of the pericardium can swell and become irritated. When these irritated layers rub together, it can be extremely painful. Pericarditis (the suffix “itis” means “inflamed”) can occur as a result of another health condition, or after a heart attack, and can last a very short time or worsen gradually over time. Mayo Clinic points to heart palpitations, cough, and sharp pain in the center or left side of the chest as the most common symptoms of pericarditis. Medication is the most common treatment, but in many cases, pericarditis goes away on its own.
3. Pulmonary arterial hypertension
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, puts added stress on the vessels and channels responsible for transporting blood around your body. When your lungs are affected, your heart also suffers. Pulmonary arterial hypertension starts in the lungs, says the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, but can lead to failure in the right side of the heart if left untreated. Increased pressure in the lungs makes it harder for the heart to pump blood through the lungs to supply it with oxygen, making it more difficult to pump enough oxygenated blood to the rest of the body. Family history, obesity, and gender are all common risk factors for this condition. Symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, fatigue, and chest pain.
4. Cardiac tamponade
Any buildup of fluid or even blood in the space between the membrane around your heart and the actual muscle puts extreme pressure on your heart. This pressure doesn’t allow your heart to function properly, and it becomes difficult for oxygen-rich blood to get to your organs. Symptoms include anxiety or restlessness, dizziness, weakness, chest pain that expands to your back, neck, and shoulders, difficulty breathing, and discomfort only relieved by leaning forward or sitting.
5. Infective endocarditis
Similar to pericarditis, endocarditis occurs when the membrane lining your heart’s four chambers becomes inflamed. However, unlike many other heart-related conditions, endocarditis is the result of an infection that occurs when bacteria enters the bloodstream and settles in the endocardium or heart valves. The National Center for Biotechnology Information notes this condition is extremely rare in western civilizations, and more prevalent in developing countries. Symptoms range from unexpected weight loss to fever to shortness of breath and fatigue. Though some cases require surgery, antibiotics are the most common treatment for infective endocarditis
Your heart is made up of muscle tissue, called myocardium. When this tissue becomes inflamed, it can cause damage. Your heart might have trouble pumping blood the way it’s supposed to, or your heart muscle could become weaker. According to the Myocarditis Foundation, the issue can result from viral infections, negative reactions to certain medications, and autoimmune diseases. Symptoms include lightheadedness, shortness of breath, chest pain, and abnormal heartbeat. A doctor will usually prescribe medication and rest to relieve symptoms and allow the heart muscle to heal.
7. Rheumatic heart disease
In countries like the U.S., your doctor prescribes antibiotics if you present symptoms of strep throat. Once you take the antibiotics as instructed (hopefully until you finish your prescribed dosage), the infection clears up and you’re fine. This isn’t the case everywhere in the world, though. If left untreated, strep infections can cause rheumatic fever — the body’s reaction to the bacteria that causes strep. This illness can cause serious damage to the heart, leading to a specific type of completely preventable heart disease. According to the World Heart Federation, rheumatic heart disease is most common among children in developing countries. The condition, however, is still treatable with antibiotics.
8. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
Myopathy describes the abnormality or disease of a muscle. So, cardiomyopathy is an abnormality of the heart muscle. Symptoms of any type of cardiomyopathy include shortness of breath, fatigue, or swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, or abdomen. According to the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association, this condition in particular occurs when the muscle cells of the heart become enlarged, causing the heart muscle itself to become thicker. This makes it harder for blood to flow through the ventricles, causing harmful changes in blood pressure. The electrical impulses that keep the heart pumping might also suffer, leading to irregular heartbeat. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is genetic; however, high blood pressure or age can also increase your risk.
9. Dilated cardiomyopathy
According to the British Heart Association, dilated cardiomyopathy and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy are opposites. In this condition, the heart muscle of your left ventricle becomes stretched out and thin. Normally, your heart muscle contracts and relaxes without trouble. It can’t pump blood as easily through your body, though, if the muscle isn’t thick enough. This type of cardiomyopathy is also genetic; if you have it, there’s a chance your child will have it too. Excessive alcohol consumption, pregnancy, and heart valve problems can also cause this condition.
10. Restrictive cardiomyopathy
The final form of cardiomyopathy we will discuss is rare. It occurs when the thickening walls of the heart become so rigid that your heart’s ventricles have a hard time filling with blood. According to Cleveland Clinic the rigidity of the heart muscle and its struggling ventricles eventually make it impossible for the heart to do its job, which results in heart failure. Fatigue, weight gain, nausea, and fainting can all occur as a result of this condition. In many cases, doctors end up treating someone’s heart failure as a result of this condition as opposed to the condition itself.
11. Heart valve stenosis
Your heart valves have three flaps that are supposed to open to let blood flow out of one chamber and into another. When a valve’s flaps don’t open properly, the American Heart Association calls it mitral, aortic, pulmonary, or tricuspid valve stenosis (depending on which valve is affected). Think of how much harder it is to drink through a straw when you pinch it closed. If a valve won’t open fully, your heart has to work much harder to push the same amount of blood through a smaller opening. People with heart valve problems often require surgery to repair or replace defective valves.
12. Heart valve prolapse
While valve stenosis happens when your heart valves don’t open correctly, valve prolapse is a valve’s failure to close. Valves are supposed to make sure blood flows into one chamber and stays there until it’s pumped out through the next valve. Sometimes, blood leaks backward through a valve when it fails to close. This is called valve regurgitation, and can force your heart to work harder to pump blood normally.
According to the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute, this can occur in any of your four heart valves, though mitral valve prolapse is the most common form. This condition can present without symptoms for years, and is often first detected as a result of a heart murmur. Shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and fatigue are common symptoms of heart valve prolapse.
13. Ventricular/atrial septal defect
Both sides of your heart’s upper and lower chambers are separated by wall that stops blood from flowing between the atria and ventricles on either side of the heart. When a septum forms abnormally (which happens before a baby is born), leaving a hole for blood to flow through, it becomes difficult for the heart to carry enough oxygen through the body. This happens because blood from the right side of the heart (blood without oxygen) mixes with blood from the left side of the heart (blood with oxygen). Oxygen-poor blood sent back out into the body can’t provide your organs with the oxygen they need.
According to MedlinePlus, symptoms of either ventricular or atrial septal defects — if a person experiences any — include difficulty breathing or frequent respiratory infections in children, and heart palpitations and shortness of breath after physical activity in adults. In some cases, septal defects resolve on their own.
14. Broken heart syndrome
With grief comes stress, and stress almost always brings trouble. A sudden increase in your body’s stress hormones can actually lead to what experts call broken heart syndrome. People with this condition often experience chest pain, to the point they think they’re having a heart attack. This happens because one part of the heart stops working. The rest of it either continues on normally or starts overcompensating for the loss of function. Experts believe this is the heart’s reaction to sudden, unexpected stress, like grieving the unexpected loss of a loved one.
According to Mayo Clinic, broken heart syndrome usually resolves on its own in a matter of days to weeks. However, if it occurs more than once, a doctor may prescribe medication to prevent it from happening again.
Why it matters
Your heart is its own system of small parts that come together to perform a much bigger task. Knowing how all the parts of your heart work together helps you better understand why it’s so dangerous when even one part can’t do its assigned job.
The whole purpose of the circulatory system — both the heart and lungs working in tandem to supply blood with oxygen and distribute it through your body — is to keep your organs fully functional. You don’t just need oxygen to breathe — your muscles need oxygen to contract and relax. Your liver and kidneys need oxygen to rid your body of toxins. Your brain needs oxygen to tell the rest of your body what to do.