Heart Disease (Cardiovascular Disease, CVD)

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

Quick GuideHeart Disease: Symptoms, Signs, and Causes

Heart Disease: Symptoms, Signs, and Causes

What is heart (cardiovascular) disease?

The heart is like any other muscle in body. It needs an adequate blood supply to provide oxygen so that the muscle can contract and pump blood to the rest of the body. Not only does the heart pump blood to the rest of the body, it also pumps blood to itself via the coronary arteries. These arteries originate from the base of the aorta (the major blood vessel that carries oxygenated blood from the heart) and then branch out along the surface of the heart.

When one or more coronary arteries narrow, it may make it difficult for adequate blood to reach the heart, especially during exercise. This can cause the heart muscle to ache like any other muscle in the body. Should the arteries continue to narrow, it may take less activity to stress the heart and provoke symptoms. The classic symptoms of chest pain or pressure and shortness of breath due to atherosclerotic heart disease (ASHD) or coronary artery disease (CAD) are called angina.

Should one of the coronary arteries become completely blocked -- usually due to a plaque that ruptures and causes a blood clot to form -- blood supply to part of the heart may be lost. This causes a piece of heart muscle to die. This is called a heart attack or myocardial infarction (myo=muscle + cardia=heart + infarction= tissue death).

Cardiovascular disease, for this article, will be limited to describing the spectrum of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries that ranges from minimal blockage that may produce no symptoms to complete obstruction that presents as a myocardial infarction. Other topics, such as myocarditis, heart valve problems, and congenital heart defects will not be covered.

Who is at risk for heart (cardiovascular) disease?

There are risk factors that increase the potential to develop plaque within coronary arteries and cause them to narrow. Atherosclerosis (athero=fatty plaque + sclerosis=hardening) is the term that describes this condition. Factors that put people at increased risk for heart disease are:

Since cardiovascular disease, peripheral artery disease, and stroke share the same risk factors, a patient who is diagnosed with one of the three has increased risk of having or developing the others.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/24/2016

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