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Cardiovascular Disease Medical Terminology

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What is Cardiovascular Disease?

Cardiovascular disease is any of a number of diseases involving the heart and/or blood vessels. It is the leading cause of death worldwide and is responsible for a huge portion of health care costs in the United States. Therefore, knowledge of the related medical terminology is vital for a number of reasons.  They include:

  • improved communication in health care
  • a better understanding of health care
  • enhanced patient adherence with treatment
  • informed health-care decision making

Medical Terminology

Pronunciation of Terms

Aneurysm – Is the sac like ballooning of a blood vessel or portion of the heart resulting from an area of weakness in the wall of the blood vessel or heart.  It poses a risk of rupture which can be life-threatening. Aneurysms most commonly occur in the arteries of the brain and in the chest and the abdominal aorta, but can occur in blood vessels of other tissues.  

Arrhythmia – An abnormality of the pattern or rate of the heartbeat. The abnormality can be too fast, too slow, or irregular.  It shows up on an EKG or heart monitor. It might be associated with a sensation of skipped, hard, or rapid heartbeats (palpitations). Lightheadedness and/or fainting oftentimes accompany.  

Arteriosclerotic – Pertaining to arteriosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis – Disease resulting from the accumulation of cholesterol plaques in cardiovascular diseasearteries. Some plaques also contain calcium and fibrous material, depending on the age of the plaque. The plaques harden and cause varying degrees of narrowing or blockage within arteries over time. Cigarette smoking, diabetes, high blood cholesterol levels, stress, a positive family history for the condition and a sedentary lifestyle are risk factors for its development.

Atherosclerotic – Pertaining to atherosclerosis.   

Atrial fibrillation (AF) – It is an irregular heart rhythm due to impulses which originate from the right atrium and spread rapidly to other parts of the heart. It results in an erratic and oftentimes too fast heartbeat. Even though the natural pacemaker of the heart is in the right atrium these abnormal impulses originate from and area outside of it. It is a risk factor for congestive heart failure, embolic stroke, and sudden death. 

Cardiac shunt – Is an abnormal connection between the pulmonary and systemic circulation through which blood flows, bypassing the normal route. The defect might be in the heart itself and/or in the great blood vessels.  It is the most common type of defect that is a part of congenital heart disease. 

Right-to-left shunt – Is a structural defect and the resulting abnormal blood flow from the pulmonary circulation to the systemic circulation.  The defect and abnormal flow might be between the right and left sides of the heart or between blood vessels of the two distinct circulations.  In either case, blood flow bypasses the lungs.  Because of the lack of gas exchange the net result is a deficiency of oxygen in systemic blood (hypoxemia). This in turn results in low oxygen in tissues (hypoxia). 

Carditis – Is a general term for inflammation of the heart. It can involve either one or a combination of the heart muscle, lining tissue, or the saclike covering. Some use it interchangeably with myocarditis. But more accurately, it is an umbrella term for myocarditis, endocarditis, pericarditis, or any combination of the three.   

Cardiomyopathy – Diseased or injured heart muscle. It can be a cause of congestive heart failure (CHF). Many things can cause it including high blood pressure, poor blood flow to the heart muscle and excessive alcohol ingestion. Oftentimes, it is idiopathic (the cause is unknown).  An echocardiogram usually clinches the diagnosis. 

Congenital heart disease – Is any of the group of diseases in which there is a defect(s) of the structure of the heart present at birth.  The defect(s) might be of the blood vessels or the tissues within or between the chambers.  There might be incomplete, missing, or improperly arranged parts.  

Congestive heart failure (CHF) – The buildup of fluid and pressure in the heart, blood vessels, lungs and sometimes other tissues as well. It is a result of the inability to effectively pump blood out to various parts of the body because of weakness of the heart muscle. Fluid accumulation in the lung tissue is pulmonary edema. Depending on the severity of the CHF, fluid may also collect in the space between the chest wall and lung (pleural effusion) abdomen (ascites), liver, or in the extremities (peripheral edema). A heart attack can cause CHF, but there are many other causes of congestive heart failure.

Coronary artery disease – Is disease within the arteries that supply blood flow to the heart muscle. Atherosclerosis is the causeIt results in full or partial blockage of one or more of the arteries. Ischemic heart disease and coronary heart disease are synonymous terms.

Deep venous thrombosis (DVT) – It is a blood clot or clots in one or more of the deep veins. The most common sites for it to occur are the legs or pelvis. It requires treatment with a blood thinner.

Endocarditis – Inflammation of the endocardium. It usually also involves one or more heart valves. Bacterial infection is the most common cause. Fungi can also cause it.    

Heart attack (myocardial infarction) – Is irreversible damage and death of a portion of the heart’s muscle resulting from the acute disruption of blood flow to it.

Heart block – Is the absence or slowing of the normal flow of impulses through the electrical pathways within the heart muscle. Proper transmission of those signals is required for the heart to beat normally.  Normal heartbeats enable the heart to pump adequate amounts of blood to the many tissues of the body. The beginning of the pathway through which the signals travel is the SA heart blocknode which is the natural pacemaker of the heart from which the electrical impulses originate. It is located in the upper part of the right atrium. Electrical signals pass from the SA node to the AV node. From there they then enter the bundle of His. The bundle of His divides into right and left bundles. The right bundle branches into Purkinje fibers. These fibers are special conductive tissue in the inner walls of the heart muscle just beneath the endocardium.  They are the endpoint in the electrical pathway which conducts the signals that cause the heart to contract.  The left bundle subdivides into anterior and posterior fascicles which also give rise to Purkinje fibers. 

The disturbance of signal flow can be at any point within the electrical system. The various types of heart block bear the name of the location of the disturbance. The main types are SA block, AV block and bundle branch block. Bundle branch block can involve the right or left main bundle.  It might also involve either or both divisions of the left bundle.  Thus, more specific terms for blocks distal to the right and left main bundles are:    

  • left anterior fascicular block (left anterior hemiblock)
  • left posterior fascicular block (left posterior hemiblock)
  • bifascicular block (left anterior and left posterior hemiblock)

Depending on the type and the severity of heart block an artificial pacemaker might be required.

Heart Failure – Means congestive heart failure.

Hypertension (high blood pressure) – Is abnormally elevated blood pressure.  It is a systolic reading (top number) greater than 140 and a diastolic reading (bottom number) greater than 90. If disorder is due to a condition or medication it is secondary hypertension. If the cause is unknown it is benign or essential hypertension.

Hypotension – Abnormally low blood pressure. It is the opposite of hypertension. It is a BP reading of less than 90/60. It has many causes. It can be associated with lightheadedness and/or fainting.

Myocardial infarction – Is the medical term for a heart attack.  

Myocarditis – Inflammation of the myocardium (heart muscle). Viral infections are the most common cause. Some bacteria can also cause it. Fungi and parasites are rare causes of it. Some medications, toxins, alcohol and autoimmunity are other causes. 

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) – Is atherosclerosis of the arteries of the limbs. It most commonly produces symptoms in the lower limbs. Those symptoms are pain in the calves, thighs or buttocks upon walking (claudication). The reason for the symptoms is lack of adequate blood flow to those areas needed during walking because of narrowing of the arteries. Another common symptom is a non-healing or slow to heal sore on the foot. The risk factors for the development of peripheral arterial disease are the same as those associated with atherosclerosis of the heart and brain.  

Pericardial effusion – Is the accumulation of fluid (which might be blood or other) in the space between the two layers of membrane surrounding the heart. When the amount of fluid reaches a certain point that it compresses the heart and interferes with its ability to fill with blood. The term for this condition which threatens life is pericardial tamponade.

Pericarditis – Inflammation of the pericardium.

Pleural effusion – Is the accumulation of fluid in the pleural space.

Pulmonary edema – It is the collection of fluid in the air spaces of the lungs and in the lung tissue between the air spaces. It causes impaired gas exchange between the blood vessels and the lungs, which if severe enough, results in respiratory failure. In addition to being a part of congestive heart failure, it can also be the result of leakage of fluid from the vessels of the lung into the lung tissue for other reasons such as fluid overload, smoke inhalation, overwhelming infection, shock and drowning, to mention only a few. If severe it might require mechanical ventilation.

Pulmonary hypertension – Is the abnormal elevation of pressure in the arteries of the lungs which interferes with oxygen uptake from the lungs. Additionally, the elevated pressure causes backup of blood into the right side of the heart which also decreases oxygen delivery to blood. A number of lung diseases can cause pulmonary hypertension but oftentimes it occurs without a known cause, in which case idiopathic pulmonary hypertension is the term to refer to it. Supplemental oxygen is required if associated hypoxemia (low oxygen in the blood stream) is severe.  

Sinoatrial block (SA block) – A disturbance in the flow of electrical impulses from the SA node into the more distal portions of the electrical conduction pathway of the heart. The block can be partial or total. 

Thrombophlebitis – Is inflammation and blood clot formation within a vein of an upper or lower limb. It is synonymous with phlebitis. Some use the term thrombophlebitis interchangeably with deep venous thrombosis but they differ in that thrombophlebitis can affect superficial or deep veins.

Unstable angina – Is angina that has changed in frequency, duration, severity, ease of provocation, or ease of relief. In addition to an increase in the frequency or severity the following are clues:

  • Decreasing amounts of activity bring it on.
  • It starts occurring at rest.
  • It requires increasing doses of nitroglycerin to relieve it.
  • Nitroglycerin does not relieve it at all.

It can sometimes be the warning sign of an impending heart attack. It warrants hospitalization to make sure that a heart attack is not occurring.

Acute coronary syndrome is an umbrella term for a state of abrupt reduction of blood flow to the heart.  It includes occurrences ranging from unstable angina to an overt heart attack as well as gray areas in between.

Valvular heart disease – Is disease of one or more of the heart valves. Valvular disease causes an abnormality of the main function of the valve which is to allow only the one-way flow of blood from the exit portion of its respective chamber when the valve closes. The problem can be one of improper closure, in which case there is reverse flow of blood. When reverse blood flow through a valve is the problem the term regurgitation or insufficiency is used. Those conditions are mitral regurgitation (mitral insufficiency) and aortic regurgitation (aortic insufficiency). The other type of problem is one in which the ring-like opening (annulus) to which a valve is attached is narrowed or the valve is stiff from scarring or calcium deposits forming on it. In either case there is partial blockage of blood flow through the valve. In this case the term stenosis is used. Those diseases are mitral stenosis and aortic stenosis.

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