Heart problems

Different types of heart problem can develop if part of the heart is not working properly.

Coronary heart disease – Small vessels carry blood to the heart muscle. If fatty deposits build up inside these vessels, less blood and oxygen reach the heart muscle. This may cause symptoms called angina.

Sometimes a piece of fatty deposit can break off and form a blood clot. This may block the vessel, stopping the flow of blood to parts of the heart. This is called a heart attack. It can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle.

Heart muscle damage and heart failure – A damaged heart muscle is less effective at pumping blood around the body. This can lead to symptoms called heart failure.

Heart valve disease – Damaged valves may affect the way blood flows through the heart. This can put strain on the heart and over time may cause heart failure.

Electrical heart problems – A problem with the heart’s electrical system may make the heart beat too fast, too slow or with an irregular pattern (called arrhythmia).

Coronary heart disease

Coronary arteries are the small blood vessels that carry blood and oxygen to the heart muscle. If fatty deposits build up inside them, these blood vessels may become narrow over time. Sometimes a blood vessel gets so narrow that it doesn’t let enough blood and oxygen flow through to the heart muscle. This is called coronary heart disease (CHD) or coronary artery disease.

Certain things increase the risk of CHD, including some cancer treatments.

CHD may cause symptoms called angina, which include:

  • chest discomfort or pain that may feel like a heaviness or tightness in your chest
  • pain that spreads to your arms, neck, jaw or stomach
  • feeling short of breath.

These symptoms usually develop when you are physically active, exercising or stressed. They usually go away when you rest and relax.

A normal artery and a narrowed artery
A normal artery and a narrowed artery

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Sometimes a piece of fatty deposit can break off and form a blood clot. This may block the blood vessel, stopping the flow of blood to parts of the heart. This is called a heart attack. It can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle.

The symptoms of a heart attack vary from person to person. They can include:

  • chest pain or discomfort that can feel like tightness, heaviness or burning in your chest
  • pain that spreads to the arms, neck, jaw, stomach or back.

The pain tends to stay even if you rest, sit or lie down. For some people, the pain is severe. Other people just feel uncomfortable.

You may also feel:

  • sweaty
  • dizzy or light-headed
  • short of breath
  • sick or you may vomit
  • generally unwell.


Heart muscle damage

Damage to the heart muscle can make it harder for the heart to pump blood around the body.

The most common reasons for heart muscle damage are:

  • a heart attack
  • high blood pressure
  • heart muscle disease, which is also called cardiomyopathy
  • problems with the heart valves
  • problems with the heart rhythm
  • some infections
  • alcohol
  • recreational drugs
  • some cancer treatments.

Heart failure

Damage to the heart muscle can lead to heart failure. This does not mean that the heart stops, just that it doesn’t pump blood around the body as well as usual.

Symptoms of heart failure can include:

  • feeling short of breath, especially when you are physically active, such as walking up the stairs, or lying flat at night
  • feeling unusually tired or weak (fatigue)
  • swollen feet, ankles or tummy.


Heart valve disease

Some people are born with an abnormal heart valve. This is known as congenital heart valve disease. The heart valves can also be damaged by:

  • infection
  • damage to the heart muscle from a heart attack
  • disease of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy)
  • getting older
  • radiotherapy to the heart or nearby areas.

Damaged valves may become stiff and not open properly. Or they may not close tightly and the blood may leak backwards. Both problems can put strain on the heart, which can cause:

  • tiredness
  • feeling short of breath
  • swelling of the legs and ankles.

If valve problems are not treated, they can lead to heart failure over time.


Electrical heart problems

A problem with the heart’s electrical system may make your heart may beat too fast, too slow or with an irregular pattern. An abnormal heart rhythm is called an arrhythmia.

There are many reasons why someone may have an abnormal heart rhythm. It is more common in older people or people who already have a heart condition. Some cancer treatments can also affect the electrical system and how the heart beats.

Some arrhythmias are more serious than others. The symptoms depend on the type of arrhythmia you have, and how it affects the way your heart works.

The most common symptoms include:

  • the sensation of feeling your heart beat (palpitations) - this may feel like a fluttering or thumping in the chest, or that your heart is beating too fast, too slow or irregularly
  • feeling dizzy
  • breathlessness
  • blackouts (fainting).

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Warning signs of heart problems

If you have any warning signs of heart problems, tell your doctor straight away. Early treatment can prevent further damage.