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If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with heart disease or has had a cardiac event, it can be overwhelming and confusing. Having information can be helpful for knowing what questions to ask your physician and how to manage the condition.


Common terms and definitions

Angina is caused by a blockage in a coronary artery that results in a temporary loss of oxygen to the heart. It causes pain in the chest like a squeezing, suffocating, or burning sensation that can feel like indigestion. While it is not a heart attack, it is a warning of that you could be more at risk for a heart attack and is usually a symptom of  Coronary Artery Disease (see below).There are several types of angina, including stable and unstable angina. With stable angina, the pain appears at predictable moments, such as after physical exertion or emotional upset.The symptoms can be relieved by rest or medication.  Stable angina put you at a higher risk of having a heart attack in the future. Unstable angina occurs unpredictably, and can occur whether you are at rest or in motion, and can even wake you up at night. It can occur more frequently than stable angina and is more severe.  The occurrence of unstable angina suggests that are heart attack may happen soon. A heart attack occurs when blood and oxygen supply to a part of the heart is cut off, damaging the heart muscle.  There are different terms used to describe heart attacks, depending on where the damage has occurred in the heart. The term infarct describes what part of an organ has been damaged due to a loss of blood supply. In describing heart attacks, an anterior infarct means that the front part of the heart has been damaged, usually due to a blockage in the left coronary artery.This is the most dangerous type of heart attack as it prevents the left ventricle of the heart from pumping blood to the rest of the body. A posterior or inferior infarct occurs at the back or base of the heart. They are usually caused by a blockage in the right coronary artery or one of its branches.You may hear a physician referring to an acute coronary syndrome, which refers to any situation in which the blood supply to the heart muscle is suddenly blocked. Unstable angina and heart attacks are examples of acute coronary syndrome and are emergency situations.

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Arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rate, whether too slow (bradycardia) or too fast (tachycardia).  In bradycardia, the heart beats too slowly (under 60 beats a minute) whereas in tachycardia, the heart beats too quickly (at over 100 beats per minute). There are several variations of arrhythmias, and some are life-threatening.

Cardiac arrest means the heart stops beating as a result of a sudden heart arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation. CPR or a defibrillator is required to bring the heart back into rhythm or death can occur within a few minutes after a cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest is more common in people with underlying heart conditions, heart failure or a previous heart attack, or from the use of illicit drugs (especially cocaine).

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The terms CAD and CHD are often used interchangeably by cardiologists. CAD refers to the arteries that bring blood to the heart muscle becoming hardened and narrowed. The narrowing is caused by a build-up of plaque in the blood (which is known as atherosclerosis). CAD can lead to angina attacks or heart attacks, as the heart isn’t receiving the blood or oxygen it needs to function.  CAD can also lead to heart failure and arrhythmias. CAD is the most common form of heart disease among men and women in Canada.

When the heart doesn’t get enough oxygenated blood, this is known as ischemic heart disease. This term can also be used interchangeably with CHD.

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These are structural abnormalities in the heart due to the heart not forming properly before birth. These can result in a lack of proper blood flow throughout the heart and body. Some are easily fixed by surgery (such as a small hole in the wall of the heart) but others can be more complicated and affect blood flow through the heart and lungs. Some examples of congenital heart disease are:  atrial septal defect (ASD), ventricular septal defect (VSD), patent ductus arteriosus (PDA), cyanotic heart disease and various valve defects.

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This occurs when the heart loses its “pumping capacity.” This is usually due to damage to the heart caused by other health events such as a heart attack, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, or cancer treatments.  It can also be caused by a heart muscle disease called cardiomyopathy. Without the “pump” working properly, fluid can build up in the body, including in the arms, legs, feet, ankles, lungs and other organs.

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Carditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle, which can affect the whole heart muscle (myocarditis), the exterior surface of the heart, or pericardium (pericarditis), or the interior of the heart, including the valves, or the endocardium (endocarditis). Carditis can be caused by a virus or bacteria. The most common bacteria are staphylococcus (staph) or Streptococcus (strep). These infections are important to treat with antibiotics to avoid damage to the heart muscle.

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This type of heart disease occurs when a disease in the lungs affects the heart. Blood flow to the lungs can slow down or get blocked if a pulmonary artery (an artery in the lungs) becomes blocked by respiratory diseases like emphysema. This blockage can increase blood pressure in the lungs, making the right side of the heart work harder. This can damage the heart muscle itself and can lead to congestive heart failure.

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This is a heart disease caused by rheumatic fever, which is an illness that can occur after a strep throat infection. It affects children and adolescents almost exclusively. The initial rheumatic fever causes carditis, or inflammation of the heart. All parts of the heart can be inflamed: the exterior surface (pericarditis); the muscle itself (myocarditis); and the interior or inner tissues of the heart, including the valves (endocarditis). This endocarditis can damage heart valves, and problems can appear 10 to 20 years after the initial infection.

While not seen as much in Canada now, thanks to treatment of strep throat with antibiotics, this type of disease is still a common problem in undeveloped countries.

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This refers to any condition that affects the structure of the heart. These can be problems that are present at birth or that develop over time, such as abnormalities in valves and vessels due to aging or disease.

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