Heart health glossary: Here are the terms you should know
February is Heart Month, which is a perfect time to brush up on your heart knowledge and check in on your cardiovascular health.
Talk to your doctor about ways you can monitor your heart health and make lifestyle changes that lower your risk for heart disease.
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It’s National Heart Month, which is a perfect time to check in with your cardiovascular health and make important lifestyle changes to lower your risk for heart disease.
But as critical as it is to maintain a healthy heart, we know it isn’t always easy to understand the language around cardiovascular health. That’s why we’ve put together a go-to glossary of heart terminology you can keep in your back pocket.
If you still have questions after reviewing this guide, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor for more information.
General heart terms
The aorta is the major artery that carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the body. Smaller arteries connect to the aorta to bring blood to other parts of the body.
Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to other parts of the body.
The atria are the upper chambers of the heart (left atrium and right atrium). The atria receive blood from veins, which is then pumped into the heart’s ventricles.
A cardiologist is a doctor who is trained to treat heart conditions.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that the body uses to build cells and make vitamins and hormones. Your liver makes good cholesterol (HDL), but you can add bad cholesterol (LDL), or dietary cholesterol, to your body by eating animal products (such as meat or dairy). Cholesterol circulates in the blood.
Plaque is a fatty deposit that can build up in your arteries and cause a blood flow blockage. It consists of cholesterol, calcium, blood clotting material and cellular waste products.
A valve helps blood flow in the right direction through the heart. The heart has four valves:
Aortic valve – The aortic valve helps direct blood from the left ventricle to the aorta.
Mitral valve – The mitral valve helps direct blood from the left atrium to the left ventricle.
Pulmonic valve – The pulmonic valve helps direct blood from the right ventricle into the pulmonary artery, which leads to the lungs.
Tricuspid valve – The tricuspid valve helps direct blood from the right atrium to the right ventricle.
A vein is a blood vessel that returns blood to the heart.
A ventricle is a pumping chamber in the bottom of the heart. The heart has two ventricles (left and right). The left ventricle pumps blood into the aorta, which sends blood to the body. The right ventricle pumps blood into the pulmonary artery, which sends blood to the lungs.
Angina is chest pain caused by the heart muscle not receiving enough oxygen-rich blood.
Atrial fibrillation (A-Fib or A Fib)
Atrial fibrillation, or A Fib, is a type of irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) caused by disorganized electrical signals in the heart’s upper chambers (atria).
Atherosclerosis is the hardening of the arteries. When arteries harden and lose elasticity, blood has a harder time flowing through them.
Calcification is a condition where calcium builds up on the heart valves. This can cause the valves to be narrow, which reduces blood flow.
Coronary heart disease (CHD or heart disease)
Coronary heart disease is a condition where plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart. Coronary heart disease is also called CHD or heart disease.
Heart attack (myocardial infarction)
A heart attack happens when a blockage in the arteries prevents oxygen-rich blood from getting to the heart. This can be caused by plaque buildup or a piece of unstable plaque that breaks off. When this happens, the heart does not get enough oxygen and part of the heart muscle can die. A heart attack is also sometimes called a myocardial infarction.
Heart failure (congestive heart failure or CHF)
Heart failure is a condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood to the body. In some cases of heart failure, the heart isn’t strong enough to pump blood effectively. In other cases, the heart doesn’t fill with enough blood. This condition can cause poor circulation and fluid buildup in different organs and tissues. This condition is also called congestive heart failure (CHF).
Heart valve stenosis
Stenosis is the narrowing of a heart valve. Stenosis can cause the heart valve not to open properly.
High blood pressure (hypertension)
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a condition where blood flows through arteries that are narrowed and less elastic. Hypertension begins when the systolic blood pressure (top number) is 130 or higher and the diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) is 80 or higher.
This test helps doctors see how blood flows through your arteries and veins so that they can check for potential narrowing. This test is also called a coronary angiogram and is usually done during cardiac catheterization.
During the test, a healthcare provider injects a contrast dye into your blood vessels. This dye is visible on an X-ray machine, which will take pictures of your blood vessels. In some cases, your doctor may decide to do a procedure to open a narrowed artery (angioplasty) during the angiogram.
This procedure allows doctors to see whether you have signs of disease in your heart muscle, arteries or valves. During the procedure, doctors can measure blood flow and blood pressure in your heart, look for defects and take blood or tissue samples. They can also do a coronary angiogram to check for narrowing.
If you undergo this procedure, a healthcare provider will insert a thin, hollow tube (catheter) into a blood vessel in your wrist or groin that leads to your heart.
Your doctor may also use cardiac catheterization when doing a procedure to open up your arteries.
An echocardiogram (echo) is an ultrasound of the heart. During the test, a healthcare provider uses an ultrasound machine to send sound waves into your body. These sound waves bounce off the heart, creating a picture of the heart, valves and arteries. This picture can help your doctor determine if there are defects or signs of disease.
Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) records your heart’s electrical activity to see if it’s functioning correctly. This test can help diagnose heart arrhythmias or a heart attack. It’s usually combined with other tests when assessing overall heart health.
During the test, a healthcare provider will place several sticky sensors on your chest, arms and legs. These sensors attach to wires that connect to the EKG machine and record your heart’s electrical activity.
A stress test helps your doctor find out how well your heart can handle increased heart rate and blood pressure. During the test, your doctor will use an electrocardiogram to measure your heart’s activity while you are under stress, which could be from exercise or a chemical that your doctor injects into your body. Your doctor will choose the type of test that’s best suited for your medical history.
Ablation, or cardiac ablation, is a procedure to treat abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias). During the procedure, your doctor will use radiofrequency energy to scar or destroy the tissue causing the arrhythmia. Radiofrequency energy is similar to microwave heat.
Your doctor will do cardiac ablation using thin tubes (catheters) inserted into your blood vessels and fed into your heart. The doctor will feed special electrodes into the catheters. The electrodes will send the radiofrequency energy into the heart tissue.
Angioplasty (coronary angioplasty) is a procedure to open narrowed arteries. During the procedure, a doctor places a special catheter (balloon catheter) into the narrowed artery to widen it. This helps improve or restore blood flow to your heart.
In many cases, doctors will also insert a stent into the artery during angioplasty. A stent is a small wire mesh tube that helps keep the artery open.
An angiotensin-converting-enzyme (ACE) inhibitor is a medication that can help lower blood pressure. ACE inhibitors help relax your arteries and veins by preventing your body from producing angiotensin II, an enzyme that narrows your blood vessels.
An anticoagulant (or blood thinner) is a medicine that can help prevent blood clots from forming in your arteries and veins. Anticoagulants can also stop existing blood clots from getting bigger.
A beta blocker is a medicine that can help lower blood pressure. These medicines block the effects of adrenaline on your heart, helping your heart beat more slowly and with less force. This results in lower blood pressure. Beta blockers can also help improve blood flow by opening up arteries and veins.
Coronary artery bypass graft (CABG)
A coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) is a procedure that helps improve blood flow to the heart by bypassing a narrow or blocked artery. During a CABG, your doctor will use a healthy blood vessel from a different part of your body to bypass the blockage and allow blood to flow to the heart. Your doctor will attach (graft) one end of the healthy blood vessel to the artery area before the blockage and the other end below the blockage.
Diuretics are medicines used to reduce excess fluid in the body. You may need to take diuretics if you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure or heart failure.
Open-heart surgery is any operation that uses a heart-lung bypass machine. This means your doctor will stop your heart and the bypass machine will do the work of your heart during the procedure. The bypass machine pumps blood, adds oxygen to your blood and removes carbon dioxide from the body.
A pacemaker is a device implanted on the heart to help control the electrical pulses that regulate your heartbeat. Your doctor may use a pacemaker along with a defibrillator to treat a heart rhythm problem (arrhythmia).
Stenting is a procedure where a doctor inserts a wire mesh device (stent) into an artery. The stent helps hold an artery open, making sure blood can flow to your heart.
Your doctor will insert a stent using a balloon catheter to open up the narrowed artery.
Transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR)
Transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) is a procedure to replace a weak and diseased aortic valve. During the procedure, the new valve is placed inside the old valve. Once the new valve is in place, it takes over for the old valve and regulates blood flow in the heart.
TAVR is a minimally invasive procedure. This means your doctor will not need to “crack open” your chest (sternotomy) to access the valve. Instead, your doctor may make small incisions between your ribs and access the heart through a large artery in the chest. In some cases, your doctor may access the heart by entering the large artery in the groin (femoral artery).
This procedure is also called transcatheter aortic valve implementation, or TAVI.
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Find a doctor
If you have questions about these terms or how to improve your heart health, talk to your doctor. You can find a Providence cardiologist using our provider directory. Or, you can search for a primary care doctor in your area.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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