In honor of American Heart Month, we asked Sabeena Ramrakhiani, MD, PPG – Cardiology, to examine the various cardiovascular testing options available to the public. Read on as she discusses each one, when your provider might utilize them and the lifestyle changes we can all make to improve the health of our hearts.
It’s no secret that your heart is one of the most important organs in your body. That’s why, if you’re having any issues, it’s essential to recognize the signs of heart disease. The typical symptoms someone may experience can include:
- Jaw pain
- Arm pain
- Shortness of breath
- Fatigue or exertional intolerance
- Chest discomfort, pressure or heaviness
- Fluttering or flip-flopping sensation in your chest
It’s also important to note that these symptoms can occur slowly and progressively, occurring days, weeks or even months before a heart attack. For this reason, you shouldn’t ignore any of these symptoms as they could be warning signs of something more. If you do experience any of the following, please speak with your primary care provider or a cardiologist immediately. However, if your symptoms become severe or persist without relief, then you could be having an impending heart attack or cardiac event in which case you should call 911 and seek immediate medical attention.
If you have a family history of heart disease, we recommend everyone know their numbers sooner rather than later. Those numbers typically include your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight (or body mass index). Also, a common misconception is that you must wait until a certain age to check these things when really, you don’t have to wait until the age your grandparents, parents or even older siblings had heart issues. It’s okay to start early. Guidelines now recommend screening for cholesterol in children if there is a strong familial high cholesterol history. Then, after the age of 20, everyone should get their cholesterol checked every five years if their numbers are good, but more frequently if numbers aren’t where they should be. However, if you experience any symptoms, you should speak with your physician to get things checked out regardless of your age.
Tests and screenings
A few standard tests and screenings we often utilize to assess someone’s heart health can include:
- Total vascular screening – This type of screening uses ultrasound technology. It assesses the health of your veins by checking for any obstacles (plaque or blockages) that could prevent blood flow.
- Electrocardiogram (EKG) – This is a painless, non-invasive test used to quickly detect heart problems and monitor the health of your heart. During an EKG, electrodes or sticky pads are taped to your chest to record the electrical signals in the heart.
- CT coronary angiogram – This is a non-invasive, outpatient imaging test that looks at the arteries that supply blood to your heart. It utilizes an x-ray machine, and a contrast dye gets injected through an IV. Then, the CAT scan obtains pictures as the contrast fills the heart arteries. This is a great test to locate any blockage points.
- HeartSmart CT scan – This is a painless and non-invasive CT scan that looks for plaque or hardening of the heart’s arteries and can detect coronary artery disease in its early stages. This preventative heart scan captures a stop-motion picture of the heart and coronary arteries to show any signs of calcified or hardened plaque. After the scan, you will receive a score. For example, if you have a score of zero, you have little to no plaque buildup, which means your five-year risk of heart issues such as a heart attack is low. We recommend that individuals with a zero score repeat their heart scan at the five-year mark. If you have a score above a zero, you have hardening of the arteries, which we divide into minimal, mild, moderate or severe categories. At this point, you should speak with your doctor or cardiologist regarding the next steps, even if you have no symptoms.
What else you can do
Beyond these tests and screenings, there are steps you can take every day to help improve your heart health. The American Heart Association suggests following the Life’s Simply 7®, which are modifiable risk factors people can improve through lifestyle changes to achieve ideal cardiovascular health. These factors include managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar, getting active, eating better, losing weight and quitting smoking.