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Heart Terms

An automatic implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (AICD) is a small device that doctors use to watch for and fix life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms. The doctor surgically implants the defibrillator under the skin, usually below the left collarbone. A wire threaded through a large vein connects the device to the heart.

A sac formed by the bulging of a blood vessel wall or heart tissue. When aneurysms grow too large, they can rupture and the bleeding that occurs can be life threatening.

A discomfort, heaviness, pressure, aching, burning, fullness, squeezing or painful feeling. Often, it can be mistaken for indigestion. Angina is usually felt in the chest, but may also be felt in the shoulders, arms, neck, throat, jaw or back.


  • Stable angina: The pain is predictable and present only during exertion or extreme emotional distress, disappearing with rest.
  • Unstable angina: This may signal an impending heart attack. The angina may occur more frequently, more easily at rest, feel more severe, last longer, or occur with minimal activity. Although this type of angina can often be relieved with oral medication (medicine taken by mouth), it is unstable and may progress to a heart attack.
  • Prinzmetal’s angina: This type of angina is rare, representing about two out of 100 cases. It usually occurs in younger patients. The pain is caused by a spasm in the coronary arteries which supply blood to the heart muscle. This spasm can be the result of exposure to cold temperatures, stress, medicines that tighten or narrow blood vessels, smoking, or cocaine use. The pain or discomfort is usually severe and occurs while resting and during the night or early morning hours.

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rhythm in which many impulses begin and spread through the atria (two upper cavities of the heart from which blood is passed to the ventricles). The resulting rhythm is disorganized, rapid and irregular and the atria are not able to fully empty their contents into the ventricles.

Atrial flutter is a regular heart rhythm in which many impulses begin and spread through the atria. The resulting rhythm is organized, but so rapid that the atria are not able to fully empty their contents into the ventricles.

An abnormal hole located in the walls between the two atria of the heart. Tiny defects called patent foramen ovale are present in up to 30% of people.

A bicuspid aortic valve has two flaps (leaflets) while, usually, an aortic valve has three flaps (tricuspid valve.)

Cardiomyopathy, or heart muscle disease, is a type of progressive heart disease in which the heart is abnormally enlarged, thickened, weak, and/or stiffened. As a result, the heart muscle’s ability to pump blood is weakened, often causing heart failure and the backup of blood into the lungs or rest of the body. The disease can also cause abnormal heart rhythms.

A carotid ultrasound provides images of the carotid arteries, located on both sides of the neck. This test measures the velocity of the blood flow through these arteries to screen for plaque buildup and is designed to assess the risk for stroke and TIA.

Carotid artery disease is also called carotid artery stenosis. The term refers to the narrowing of the carotid arteries. This narrowing is usually caused by the buildup of fatty substances and cholesterol deposits, called plaque. Carotid artery occlusion refers to complete blockage of the artery. Carotid stenosis can cause an increased risk for a stroke.

A lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. It is caused by damage to the lungs over many years, usually from smoking.

COPD is often a mix of two diseases:

  • Chronic bronchitis: In chronic bronchitis, the airways that carry air to the lungs get inflamed and make a lot of mucus. This can narrow/block the airways, making it hard to breathe.
  • Emphysema: In a healthy person, the tiny air sacs in the lungs work similar to balloons. As a person breathes in and out, they get bigger and smaller to move air through the lungs. However, with emphysema, these air sacs are damaged and lose their stretch. Less air gets in and out of the lungs, which creates shortness of breath.

An echocardiogram is a test that uses ultrasound to evaluate the heart muscle, heart valves, and overall structure and function of the heart.

There are several types of echocardiograms and the cardiologist will help determine which is best for the patient.

  • Transthoracic Two-Dimensional Echocardiogram w/Doppler (2-D Echo): Most commonly used in-office, a 2-D Echocardiogram is a test in which ultrasound is used to obtain a picture of the heart. It is capable of displaying a cross sectional “slice” of the beating heart, including the chambers, valves and the major blood vessels that exit from the left and right part of the heart. A “Doppler” is a special part of the ultrasound exam that assesses blood flow (direction and velocity). Echocardiography is an important tool in providing the cardiologists with important information of the size of the heart chambers, dimension, volume and the thickness of the walls. It can also determine if the pumping power of the heart is normal or reduced to a mild or severe degree. It identifies valve function, which is the structure, thickness and movement of each heart valve. It also identifies blood pressure, volume of circulating blood, whether there is fluid in the pericardium (the sac that surrounds the heart), congenital heart disease, blood clots, tumors within the heart, active infection of the heart valves, and abnormal elevation of pressure within the lungs.
  • Transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE): This test requires that the transducer be inserted down the throat into the esophagus (the swallowing tube that connects the mouth to the stomach). Because the esophagus is located close to the heart, clear images of the heart structures can be obtained without the interference of the lungs and chest.

The ejection fraction (EF) is a measurement of the heart’s efficiency and can be used to estimate the function of the left ventricle, which pumps blood to the rest of the body. The left ventricle pumps only a fraction of the blood it contains. The EF is the amount of blood pumped divided by the amount of blood the ventricle contains. A normal EF is more than 55% of the blood volume.

A test that checks for problems with the electrical activity of your heart. An EKG translates the heart’s electrical activity into line tracings on paper. The spikes and dips in the line tracings are called waves.

A small recorder (monitor) that is attached to electrodes on the chest. It records the heart’s rhythm continuously for 24 to 48 hours, as the patient goes about their normal daily activities. After the monitor is removed, the data is evaluated by the physician for any arrhythmias or other electrical abnormalities.

Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against blood vessel walls. The heart pumps blood into the arteries (blood vessels), which carry the blood throughout the body. High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is dangerous because it makes the heart work harder to pump blood to the body and it contributes to hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis and the development of heart failure.

Some people undergoing a nuclear stress test are unable to use a treadmill because of medical conditions. Lexiscan may be used when a person is unable to walk on a treadmill. This test is used to evaluate for significant isechemia.

The mitral valve controls blood flow on the left side of the heart. The valve opens and closes with each heartbeat. It works like a one-way gate, letting blood flow from the upper heart chamber to the lower chamber. When mitral valve prolapse is present, the valve closes after blood flows through, but the valve bulges backward a little. Mitral valve prolapse is normally not dangerous and patients can live a normal life without changing their activity or diet. However, a few people with this condition develop another problem. If the valve does not close tightly enough, blood can leak (regurgitate) into the upper chamber. This is called mitral valve regurgitation. The heart then has to work harder to pump this extra blood. Over time, this can damage the heart.

This scan uses the electrical signals of the heart to trigger the camera to take a series of pictures that can be viewed later like a motion picture. The pictures record the heart’s motion and determine if it is pumping (contracting) properly. This is usually used to evaluate ejection fraction.

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI), is damage to the heart muscle. “Myo” means muscle, “cardial” refers to the heart and “infarction” means death of tissue due to lack of blood supply. The most common symptom is chest pain or discomfort which may travel into the shoulder, arm, back, neck, or jaw. Often it is the center or left side of the chest and lasts for more than a few minutes. The discomfort may occasionally feel like heartburn. Other symptoms may include shortness of breath, nausea, feeling faint, a cold sweat, or feeling tired. The mechanism of an MI often includes the complete blockage of a coronary artery caused by a rupture of an atherosclerotic plaque.

A small device that sends electrical impulses to the heart muscle to maintain a suitable heart rate and rhythm. It is implanted just under the skin of the chest during a minor surgical procedure. The pacemaker has two parts: the leads and a pulse generator. The leads are wires that are threaded through the veins into the heart and implanted into the heart muscle. They send impulses from the pulse generator to the heart muscle, as well as sense the heart’s electrical activity. The pulse generator houses the battery and a tiny computer and resides just under the skin of the chest.

A swelling and irritation of the pericardium, which is the sac that surrounds the heart. Most of the time the cause is either not known or is thought to be a viral infection.

Excess fluid that accumulates in the pleural cavity, the fluid-filled space that surrounds the lungs. Excessive amounts of such fluid can impair breathing by limiting the expansion of the lungs during inhalation.

Pulmonary hypertension is a type of high blood pressure that affects the arteries in the lungs and the right side of the heart. It begins when tiny arteries in the lungs and capillaries become narrow, blocked, or destroyed. This makes it harder for blood to flow through the lungs, and raises pressure within the lungs’ arteries. Symptoms of pulmonary hypertension include shortness of breath (dyspnea) especially during exercise, fatigue, fainting spells (syncope), chest pressure or pain, swelling (edema) in the ankles/legs, bluish color to lips and skin, and racing pulse or heart palpitations.

Temporary loss of consciousness and posture, described as “fainting” or “passing out.”

Some people call a transient ischemic attack (TIA) a mini-stroke, because the symptoms are like those of a stroke but resolve in 24 hours. A TIA happens when blood flow to part of the brain is blocked or reduced, often by a blood clot. After a short time, blood flows again and the symptoms go away.

Tricuspid valve disease can occur when the heart valve between the right atrium and the right ventricle, which normally has three flaps or cusps, becomes narrowed.

Ventricular septal defect is a hole in the wall between the right and left ventricles of the heart. This abnormality usually develops before birth and is found most often in infants. The ventricles are the two lower chambers of the heart. The wall between them is called the septum. A hole in the septum is called a septal defect. Normally, unoxygenated blood from the body returns to the right half of the heart, that is the right atrium, then the right ventricle, which pumps the blood to the lungs to absorb oxygen. After leaving the lungs, the oxygenated blood returns to the left half of the heart, that is the left atrium, then the left ventricle, where it is pumped out to provide oxygen to all the tissues of the body.

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