Myocardial what? A glossary of must-know cardiac terms
You’ve just learned that someone you love has a heart problem, and you’re trying to be helpful and understand the treatment, but some of these medical terms sound like a jumble. Or maybe you’re the one with the heart problem. And when it comes to your heart, you need to understand exactly what your doctor is talking about.
This glossary provides some simple explanations for a few of the cardiac terms you might be hearing. (It’ll also help when you’re watching reruns of Grey’s Anatomy.)
Angioplasty is a nonsurgical way to open clogged arteries of the heart.
A narrow plastic tube, called a catheter, with a tiny, deflated balloon at its tip is inserted into a large vein in the patient’s arm or leg. Doctors guide it to the clogged artery, where they inflate the balloon enough to widen the artery and clear out hard, fatty buildup.
After the artery has been cleared, the catheter and balloon are removed.
This term is used to describe heart arteries that are blocked by fatty deposits, called plaque.
Plaque can collect and harden along blood vessel walls and clog the heart’s major blood highways. This can mean trouble for the heart because it is not receiving a steady supply of blood.
Atrial fibrillation (AY-tree-awl fihb-rih-LAY-shuhn).
The atria are the two small upper chambers of the heart. Atrial fibrillation is a condition in which, instead of beating steadily, the atria “flutter” quickly and weakly, and blood isn’t pumped in and out of the atrial chambers completely. Blood that’s trapped there forms clots, increasing the risk of stroke.
Atrial fibrillation can be treated with medications, surgery and pacemakers.
Cardiac catheterization (CAHR-dee-ak CATH-eh-tur-eye-ZAY-shuhn).
This procedure is most often done to measure the amount of plaque in the coronary arteries (the arteries that supply the heart with blood).
This procedure can also measure how well the heart is pumping.
During a cardiac catheterization, a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel in an arm or leg. The catheter is then threaded through the patient’s veins toward the main heart arteries.
Cardiac stent (CAHR-dee-ak STEHNT).
A stent is a small, hollow mesh tube that strengthens artery walls and helps an artery stay open.
A doctor will sometimes insert a stent during an angioplasty procedure. This mesh tube is looped around the angioplasty balloon. When the balloon reaches the artery and is inflated, the stent expands and “locks” itself permanently in place.
An electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) tracks the electrical activity of heartbeats.
Electrical waves pass through the heart muscle constantly, causing it to squeeze blood in and out of its chambers, making the heart beat. A doctor uses an ECG to make sure these electrical waves are occurring at the right speed, and to see if any part of the heart is working harder than it should be.
Electrophysiology is a field of medicine that focuses on the electrical patterns of the heart.
Electrophysiological tests, such as cardiac mapping, are done to find out why patients’ hearts are not beating regularly. Cardiac mapping uses a catheter equipped with special sensors to track the heart’s electrical currents to locate and diagnose the cause of an abnormal heartbeat.
Myocardial infarction (my-oh-CAHR-dee-awl ihn-FAHRK-shuhn).
This is a complicated-sounding term that essentially means heart attack. It occurs when the blood supply of any of the heart’s major arteries is blocked, interrupted or severely decreased.
When oxygen and blood can’t pump effectively to a part of the heart, that part of the heart is damaged, and the patient experiences telltale heart attack symptoms, including chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath and palpitations.
These symptoms are sometimes, but not always, as dramatic as they are on TV. But even mild symptoms can mean a big problem, so anyone who suspects they are having a heart attack needs to get to a hospital — fast.
Ventricular fibrillation (vehn-TRIHK-oo-lur fihb-rih-LAY-shuhn).
Ventricular fibrillation describes a heartbeat that’s out of sync.
The electrical impulses that control the heart’s pumping become irregular, and the large, lower compartments of the heart — the ventricles — flutter very fast instead of beating steadily.
Ventricular fibrillation is life-threatening and needs to be treated immediately with a device called a defibrillator, which shocks the heart and “resets” its electrical impulses.
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