When describing the heart, think of a house. Yes, the heart is a complex muscular organ that pumps blood filled with oxygen and nutrients to the body. But a simple analogy can explain its structure and the special care it needs.
Think of the heart like a two-story house with four rooms or chambers separated by strong walls. That would be two atria upstairs and two ventricles downstairs. Blood is pumped through these chambers, aided by four heart valves that act like doorways.
Diseases of the heart can usually be traced to problems with the “plumbing,” “electrical” or “structural” systems.
Just as you would call an expert such as a plumber, electrician or carpenter to make home repairs, you would seek a heart specialist for your heart care.
Depending on the problem, it could be a general cardiologist or a specialist – such as an interventional cardiologist, a cardiovascular surgeon or an electrophysiologist – who helps you. These experts treat many heart conditions, such as coronary artery disease, abnormal rhythms (arrhythmia), valve problems and congestive heart failure.
Just like a pipe may be blocked or clogged and need clearing, so might a coronary artery.
Interventional cardiologists are the “plumbers” of the cardiology world and are skilled in handling plumbing emergencies, including heart attacks. They use catheter-based procedures to help clear the pipes and restore healthy blood flow to clogged or blocked arteries as well as repair damaged or abnormal heart valves. Their “toolbox” includes stents and special blades to remove plaque caused by cholesterol deposits.
Just like a hole in the wall may need patching, so may a heart wall. Think of cardiovascular surgeons as “master carpenters,” who are really good with their hands. You can schedule a visit but they are also available for emergencies.
Cardiovascular surgeons specialize in surgeries performed on the heart and its circulatory system, including the major arteries and veins. One procedure commonly performed by a cardiovascular surgeon is a coronary artery bypass graft, also known as bypass surgery, in which a blocked coronary artery is bypassed through surgical placement of a new healthy vessel from the leg or other part of the body.
Just like a house has an electrical system, the heart has electrical functionality thanks to its sinoatrial node – the heart’s natural pacemaker – and its atrioventricular node – which helps regulate heart rate.
Electrophysiologists are the “electricians” of the heart. They specialize in the heart’s electrical signaling, which can be the source of arrhythmias, where the heart beats too rapidly, slowly or erratically. They can perform minimally invasive heart procedures, such as ablations to eliminate the source of arrhythmias.
Like electricians, they are trained at installing and controlling all kinds of wiring and devices. They can implant small defibrillator devices that restore regular heart rhythms, as well as small pacemaker devices that help the heart beat normally.
So when considering heart care, think of your home and the special place it holds in your heart. Be sure to get an annual physical exam from your primary care physician and see a cardiologist if you’re worried about a family history of heart disease or other possible signs of heart trouble.