Your heart is a muscle that works as a pump to send oxygen-rich blood through all parts of your body. The heart will beat an average of 100,000 times per day, pumping more than 4,300 gallons of blood throughout your entire body.
The heart is divided into two sides, each divided into two chambers, the atrium (upper chamber) and ventricle (lower chamber). Because blood vessels carry blood to the heart from the rest of the body, the blood carries carbon dioxide and cellular waste products. In order to eliminate those waste products, the blood must flow into the right atrium and then to the right ventricle, where it is then pumped to the lungs to dispose of wastes and receive a fresh oxygen supply. From the lungs, the blood returns to the heart, then to the left atrium and left ventricle. The left ventricle pumps blood out of the heart into the aorta where small arteries carry the blood to the rest of the body.
In some instances, normal heart function is interrupted and treatment is needed. The two most common conditions resulting in additional attention to the heart include heart failure and heart disease.
Heart failure is a condition in which the heart can't pump enough blood to the body's other organs due to:
- Coronary artery disease - narrowed arteries that supply blood to the heart
- Past heart attack
- High blood pressure
- Heart valve disease
- Primary disease of the heart muscle itself called cardiomyopath
- Heart defects present at birth — congenital heart defects.
- Infection of the heart valves and/or heart muscle itself
While the "failing" heart continues to function, it is no longer efficient which results in shortness of breath and exhaustion. As blood flow out of the heart slows, blood returning to the heart through the veins backs up, causing congestion in the tissues. Because of this, swelling (edema) often results.
Signs to look for may include swelling in the legs and ankles or other parts of the body. Occasionally fluid may also collect in the lungs causing shortness of breath.
Heart disease is the leading cause of heart attacks, as well as the number one killer of women, more than all types of cancers combined. Coronary artery disease causes arteries to become hard and limits the flow of blood throughout the body. As a result, the heart cannot receive the blood it needs, resulting in angina (chest pain or discomfort) or heart attack (when an artery is blocked).