How to Diagnose Heart Disease

Diagnosing heart disease is a task for health professionals. They use complementary studies designed especially for that purpose. Want to learn more about the methods?
How to Diagnose Heart Disease

Last update: 14 December, 2020

To diagnose heart disease, physicians confront the patient with information that they need to think about, which mainly involves lifestyle changes. Aside from medications for arrhythmia, for example, both diet and physical exercise are essential for controlling heart disease.

A cardiac pathology is one that is located in the heart, as opposed to cardiovascular pathologies, which also include arteries and veins. Besides arrhythmias, some examples are dilation of the heart muscle, heart attacks, and cardiac insufficiency. As for internal valves, stenoses and prolapses are a few examples.

Specialists use the same complementary methods for most of these disorders. Diagnosing heart disease usually consists of following a few steps that involve carrying out studies of lesser to greater complexity. Keep reading to learn more about these studies!

Which studies diagnose heart disease?

As we’ve already mentioned, there are complementary methods to diagnose heart diseases that doctors use for several illnesses. With an electrocardiogram, for example, it’s possible to detect an arrhythmia and a heart attack even though the pathologies aren’t the same.

Electrocardiogram

An electrocardiogram (EKG) is an electrical record of the heart muscle’s activity. The electrodes located on the outside of the body perceive the variations in electricity that are characteristic of the heartbeat. This originates in the internal system that has the heart tissue which orders the heart to beat.

The test doesn’t require anesthesia or extensive preparations. Moreover, it’s performed in outpatient clinics and the patient leaves after no more than half an hour of being there. Sometimes doctors request routine check-ups with EKG to track changes that might be hard to see. Other times, they will monitor heart-related pathologies, such as a heart attack or high blood pressure.

Through the electrocardiogram device, the record is captured on paper with a line denoting the heartbeat. The interpretation of the study depends on the physician’s training. There are established reading protocols that indicate the meaning of each line that was drawn.

Electrocardiogram reading.
One of the main tests for detecting heart disease is the electrocardiogram. For example, doctors use it to diagnose hypertension or heart attacks.

Echocardiogram

A doctor may order an echocardiogram to diagnose heart disease. The test consists of an ultrasound scan similar to that used to monitor a pregnancy, but directed at the heart.

A device called a transducer sends signals, such as echoes, that bounce off the heart muscle and return so that specialists can interpret them as an image on a monitor. It’s possible to see the movement, the beats, the shape, and the cardiovascular dynamics all live and in real time.

A variant of this is the doppler, with the addition of colors to the image to distinguish between venous and arterial blood. Nowadays, most doctors prefer this modality as they receive more information.

Stress test

The technical name for the stress test to diagnose heart disease is “ergometry”. In basic terms, physical exercise stimulates the heart to record what happens under stressful conditions. At the same time, electrocardiograms and echocardiograms will be performed while the patient runs on a treadmill or pedals a stationary bike.

Doctors consider parameters in a stress test in order not to exceed capacities that could put the life of the people who are performing it at risk. Specialists have established limits for heart rate, for the inclination of the treadmill in case it’s a mobile one, and signs to look out for when they would need to stop the experiment.

This is a very useful complementary method because it simulates real-life situations in which patients may run or jog against resistance, as well as climb stairs. In a controlled environment, the heart is studied while replicating reality.

Holter Monitor

The test that doctors call “holter” for short is actually a long-term electrocardiogram. For one or two days, the patients use a device that records the heart’s electrical activity.

Then, with computer programs, specialist count variables such as arrhythmia count, accelerations, tachycardias and bradycardias. Their advantage is when there are situations that don’t happen with the EKG at the doctor’s office and that happen, for example, when the patient is asleep. These situations help doctors diagnose hidden heart disease.

Cardiac catheterization

A cardiac catheterization is a surgical intervention, since it involves inserting a catheter into the circulatory system. Access is usually through the upper or lower extremities, until the device reaches the heart, which can take measurements or inject radiographic dyes.

The procedure is usually supported by external images that will follow the appearance of the radiographic dye. This way, it’s possible to see the cardiac chambers with a special detail that detects malfunctions and anatomical defects.

Not all patients can undergo a catheterization, but those who can, can benefit from treatment at the same time. With the catheter already inserted, it’s possible to perform repairs or remove clots in the coronary arteries, for example.

Cardiac Magnetic Resonance

Advances in imaging methods have made it possible to achieve a heart-specific MRI. Just as with MRIs for the rest of the body, specialists use a non-radiant force to observe the heart muscle. Its indications may overlap with those of the echocardiogram.

Computed tomography of the heart

Computed axial tomography (CT) also responds to the fundamentals of body CT, only applied to heart tissue. It uses x-ray radiation, such as radiography, to generate images of the chest that provide more information. The patient lies down on a stretcher, and doctors will then move them into a “tunnel” through which the X-rays will be emitted.

Computerized tomography.
Computerized tomography has become one of the complementary diagnostic tests when doctors suspect there is heart disease.

Reducing the risk of heart disease

Aside from consulting doctors to diagnose heart disease, it’s important to prevent it. Current methods allow us to detect early dangerous alterations to life, but an adequate diet, exercise, stress reduction, and periodic controls are the best tools.

  • As for diet, it’s good to remember that eating more vegetables over meats, and the inclusion of natural, not ultraprocessed foods, abundant in omega 3, have been shown to protect cardiovascular health.
  • Regarding physical exercise, scientific studies agree that aerobic exercise practiced on intermediate days, lasting between 30 and 60 minutes, is sufficient to reduce risks.
  • To reduce stress, there are various techniques ranging from deep breathing to yoga, as well as meditation and mindfulness. Each person prefers one or the other according to their personality and cultural context.
  • Lastly, you should have regular check-ups with medical professionals at least once a year. For adults, specialists recommend an annual electrocardiogram, although in diabetics and top athletes it should be done less frequently, at least every 6 months.

If all this fails, then you’ll have to undergo perform some complementary method of those listed in order to arrive at the proper diagnosis. When in doubt, the best thing to do is to consult a doctor, especially if there are warning symptoms.

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