Understanding Heart Care

A guide to common heart conditions and heart specialists

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A guide to common heart conditions and heart specialists

When it comes to heart care, there are so many different physician specialties, conditions and terminologies that it can seem overwhelming.

“The better you understand basic heart conditions and the specialists who treat them, the better you can understand your own care,” says Kiyon Chung, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps.

Common heart conditions

Heart disease refers to various types of conditions that affect the heart. It can be worrying to be diagnosed with a heart condition, but learning more about the condition can help you worry less.

The following is a list of common heart conditions, warning signs and symptoms and the heart specialists who treat them.

Heart attack

A heart attack is also known as a myocardial infarction. It occurs when one of the arteries bringing blood to your heart is blocked. This can be caused by a blood clot or plaque or both. Warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain and shortness of breath.

Coronary artery disease

Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease in the United States. It occurs when there is a narrowing or blockage of the heart’s coronary arteries. This is caused by buildup of calcified plaque from cholesterol deposits. The coronary arteries provide vital blood supply to support the heart muscle.

Abnormal heart rhythm

Also known as arrhythmia, an abnormal heart rhythm can mean the heart is beating too fast, too slow or unevenly. Causes and types of arrhythmia are based on which chamber of the heart is not working correctly.

Sudden cardiac arrest

Sometimes referred to as sudden death, sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the electrical impulses that keep the heart pumping fail and the heart stops beating. It is not the same as a heart attack.

Causes vary. It can occur in people of all ages and in people with no previous history of heart disease.

Heart failure

Heart failure or congestive heart failure is not cardiac arrest. It is a chronic, long-term condition, however. The most common causes are blocked arteries and heart attack or uncontrolled high blood pressure.

Heart valve disease

This is a defect in one or more of the four heart valves. Heart valves open and close to allow blood to flow between the chambers of the heart.The four heart valves are aortic, mitral, tricuspid and pulmonary.

Defective valves do not open and close properly, and cause symptoms, such as shortness of breath and fatigue. Causes of heart valve disease include congenital defects, infection or degeneration due to aging.

Adult congenital heart disease

Congenital heart disease means you were born with a birth defect in the heart’s structure. Congenital heart defects can be diagnosed at birth, during childhood or even as an adult. Patients who had surgery as infants or during childhood will require continuing care as adults.

Peripheral vascular disease

This condition is also known as peripheral artery disease (PAD). It is caused by buildup of plaque inside the arteries outside of the heart and throughout the body. This buildup reduces the amount of blood that can flow through the body from head to toe.

What do cardiovascular specialists do?

“Depending on your condition, you may have multiple heart care physicians. And each will specialize in a different aspect of your care,” notes Dr. Chung. “Each of your heart care or cardiovascular specialists should be board certified in internal medicine or cardiovascular disease. Each should also have a sub-specialty area. Some heart care physicians may only treat a specific heart condition or are trained in specific heart care procedures.”


Cardiologists specialize in diagnosing and managing heart disease. They perform various diagnostic tests. This includes echocardiograms, stress tests or diagnostic cardiac catheterizations.

Cardiologists prescribe medications and work with patients to make lifestyle changes and manage risk factors for heart disease. Some specialize in managing specific conditions, such as heart failure or arrhythmia, and may implant pacemakers.

Interventional cardiologist

Interventional cardiologists perform procedures, such as heart catheterizations for diagnosis. They perform stent implantations — which open hardened, blocked or partially blocked arteries to prevent a heart attack — and angioplasty. They may also perform percutaneous valve placement, a minimally invasive procedure to replace damaged heart valves. Some are trained in peripheral vascular angioplasty and stent procedures for the arteries in the legs, kidneys and neck.

Electrophysiologist (EP specialist)

Electrophysiologists are the “cardiac electricians,” who specialize in treating and correcting abnormal rhythms of the heart.

EP specialists perform tests for abnormal heart rhythms. They can implant devices, such as pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICD) to help the heart beat normally.

Many specialize in performing cardiac ablations. This procedure treats areas of the heart that are causing an abnormal heart rhythm, such as atrial fibrillation or other arrhythmias.

Heart surgeon

Heart surgeons are not cardiologists. They may be referred to as cardiac surgeons, cardiovascular surgeons or cardiothoracic surgeons. They use surgical methods to correct a variety of heart conditions.

Heart surgeons can replace or repair faulty heart valves. They can repair holes in the heart that can contribute to an abnormal heart rhythm. They can perform coronary artery bypass grafts (CABG), which reroutes the blood and oxygen supply to the heart. Some are trained in minimally invasive and robotic surgical procedures.

Heart failure specialist

These are cardiologists who specialize in heart failure. They are especially trained to treat people with advanced heart failure. They are usually familiar with and have access to the most advanced therapies for heart failure. This includes experimental treatments, Left Ventricular Assist Devices (LVAD) and heart transplants.

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