What is cardiomyopathy?

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Cardiomyopathy is a type of heart disease. This progressive condition affects the myocardium, or the heart’s muscular tissue. In a person with cardiomyopathy, the heart muscle is weakened, thus preventing it from efficiently pumping blood to the rest of the body. The condition causes the heart to become enlarged, making its muscle tissue thicker and more rigid than usual. In some extreme cases, scar tissue may replace muscle tissue, further damaging the organ.

There are several types of cardiomyopathy, each with a different cause and manifestation. However, all versions of the condition can lead to heart valve complications, an irregular heartbeat, and heart failure. This condition intensifies over time, so most patients require regular care and appointments with a cardiologist. If you suspect you have cardiomyopathy, or if you are experiencing any of its symptoms, see a doctor as soon as possible. With proper maintenance and continued care, a cardiomyopathy diagnosis does not have to be fatal.

What causes cardiomyopathy?

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Cardiologists like to talk about heart conditions in the categories “acquired” or “inherited.” Acquired conditions are those that develop over time as the result of external factors. This often includes lifestyle, which can mean anything from diet and exercise regularity to weight. On the other hand, inherited conditions are genetic and can occur regardless of lifestyle. Cardiomyopathy can be both acquired and inherited.

If you have a family history of cardiomyopathy, see a cardiologist early and often. Some forms of the condition can present without symptoms, making it difficult to observe and diagnose. Without treatment, however, those with the condition may suffer cardiac arrest. Talk to your family about heart health history to better understand your personal risk.

Those with acquired cardiomyopathy can’t often trace the condition to a single cause. Lifestyle factors, like heavy alcohol consumption, obesity, and drug use, are known to increase a person’s risk of the heart condition. Additionally, other conditions, like sarcoidosis, hemochromatosis, and high blood pressure can contribute to cardiomyopathy development. In most cases, however, patients and doctors will not be able to pinpoint the exact cause.

What are the different types of cardiomyopathy?

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There are four main cardiomyopathy types, each with its own cause. Some are more common than others, so talk to your doctor about which type of cardiomyopathy you may have.

  • Dilated: This type of cardiomyopathy is characterized by an enlarged ventricle, which is the pumping chamber in the heart. Dilated cardiomyopathy occurs more often in men, and it is the most common form of the condition in children.
  • Arrhythmogenic: This version causes irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias, which can lead to their own complications. Arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy is characterized by the replacement of muscle tissue in the right ventricle with fibrous or fatty tissue, which can disrupt the heart’s electrical signals. Often inherited, it occurs most frequently in men.
  • Hypertrophic: Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the most common form of the condition, affecting men and women equally at a rate of 1 in every 500 people. This type of cardiomyopathy happens when the heart muscle enlarges, usually in the lower chambers and septum, which is the heart’s dividing wall. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy often presents in childhood or early adulthood, and it can cause sudden death in young people.
  • Restrictive: The least common form of the condition, restrictive cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart muscle is stiff or scarred, but the walls do not thicken. As a result, the ventricles cannot relax or fill with the normal blood volume.

There are also other, less common types of cardiomyopathy. These often occur alongside other heart conditions, like arrhythmias, amyloidosis, or hemochromatosis. Talk to your doctor about your likelihood of developing one of these rarer forms of the disease.

What are common cardiomyopathy symptoms?

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Many people with this condition will never experience cardiomyopathy symptoms. Others will not experience symptoms until the condition progresses. This is why it is very important to see a cardiologist if you have a family history of heart conditions.

As the condition changes over time, people may experience any of the following cardiomyopathy symptoms.

  • Fatigue
  • Swelling, especially in the feet, legs, ankles, neck, and abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Lightheadedness and dizziness
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart palpitations
  • Cough while lying down

If you experience any of these signs and symptoms, seek medical help. Remember that an early cardiomyopathy diagnosis can significantly improve a person’s prognosis.

How do I get a cardiomyopathy diagnosis?

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You will need to visit a cardiologist in order to receive a cardiomyopathy diagnosis. When you arrive for your appointment, the doctor will ask about your family medical history to establish any predisposition you may have to the condition. Then, they will use a stethoscope to listen for an irregular heartbeat or other sounds that may suggest a cardiomyopathy diagnosis. Along with using a stethoscope, a doctor will visually assess your body, looking for signs of swelling.

If you or your doctor has reason to believe you have this condition, the physician will use one or more of the following cardiac diagnostic tests to confirm.

  • Electrocardiogram: This test records the heart’s electrical activity, showing how fast the heart heats as well as its rhythm. Some doctors will suggest using this test during the appointment, while others will require you to wear a portable EKG for a day in order to get a broader sample.
  • Echocardiography: This test uses sound waves to create a picture of the heart. This picture can help a doctor assess any swelling while also demonstrating how well the organ is working. There are several types of echo tests, including stress echoes and transesophageal echoes.
  • Chest X-ray: This test will take a picture of the structures inside your chest to determine whether the heart is enlarged. X-rays can also show whether fluid is building in a person’s lungs.
  • Diagnostic Procedures: Some doctors will recommend a procedure to confirm a diagnosis. Cardiac catheterization is a procedure that checks the blood flow inside the heart’s chambers using a long, flexible, thin tube. By contrast, a coronary angiography uses injected dye, which allows the doctor to study the blood’s flow through the heart and into blood vessels. These procedures are often conducted together. Some doctors may also recommend a myocardial biopsy, in which a doctor removes a piece of the heart muscle for further study.

Is there a treatment for cardiomyopathy?

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Cardiomyopathy treatment will vary by person and treatment goal. In most cases, strategies will be used to manage symptoms and prevent the condition from worsening. This, in turn, will help to reduce potential complications.

In many cases, doctors will suggest surgically implanted devices, which can improve heart function and relieve symptoms. Common devices include implantable cardioverter-defibrillators, which can deliver electric shocks to regulate the heart, and pacemakers, which can control arrhythmias. Ventricular assist devices may also be used to help circulate blood within the heart.

A doctor may also recommend surgery. A septal myectomy is a common cardiomyopathy treatment. In this procedure, the surgeon will remove part of the thickened heart muscle wall, which will improve blood flow and reduce mitral valve regurgitation. This will then improve the heart’s ability to function.

Certain cardiomyopathy medications can also assist treatment. These medicines will aim to improve the heart’s ability to pump blood, improve blood flow, slow the heart rate, keep blood clots from forming, and/or lower blood pressure. However, it is important to talk to your doctor about any possible side effects for these drugs.

When to see a doctor for cardiomyopathy treatment?

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If you have one or more symptoms associated with cardiomyopathy, make an appointment with your doctor. While these symptoms are common for a variety of conditions, heart ailments are too serious to take lightly. Additionally, seek emergency help if you are experiencing fainting, severe difficulty breathing, and/or chest pain that lasts more than several minutes.

Even if you do not have cardiomyopathy symptoms, those with a family history of heart conditions should make an appointment with a cardiologist. This condition does not often have symptoms, especially in children, but it can result in sudden cardiac arrest when not appropriately treated. Without treatment, several cardiomyopathy complications may emerge, including heart failure, blood clots, and valve problems. The only way to know whether you have cardiomyopathy is to receive a formal diagnosis from a cardiologist. The earlier you secure this diagnosis, the earlier you can begin receiving treatment.

While there is no prescription for cardiomyopathy prevention, certain lifestyle factors can improve the disease’s prognosis. Avoiding alcohol and cocaine use, as well as eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep can all slow the condition’s development.