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Overview of Heart and Blood Vessel Symptoms

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by Lyall A. J. Higginson, MD

Disorders that affect the heart or blood vessels are called cardiovascular disorders. These disorders are usually divided into heart (cardiac) disorders and peripheral blood vessel disorders. Heart disorders affect the heart, its valves, and the blood vessels that supply the heart muscle (coronary arteries). Peripheral blood vessel disorders affect the blood vessels of the arms, legs, and trunk (except those supplying the heart). Disorders that affect the blood vessels supplying the brain are called cerebrovascular disorders. Stroke is an example (see Overview of Stroke).

No single symptom unmistakably indicates a heart disorder, but certain symptoms suggest the possibility, and several symptoms together may make the diagnosis almost certain. Doctors identify symptoms by interviewing the person to obtain the medical history and by doing a physical examination. Often, diagnostic procedures are done to confirm the diagnosis. However, sometimes a heart disorder, even when serious, causes no symptoms until it reaches a late stage (see Limitation of Physical Activity). Routine health checkups or a visit to the doctor for another reason may uncover a heart disorder that has caused no symptom. Sometimes doctors do procedures to screen for a heart disorder even when there is no evidence of it.

The symptoms of a heart disorder include certain types of pain (for example, chest pain—see Chest Pain), shortness of breath, fatigue, palpitations (awareness of slow, fast, or irregular heartbeats—see Palpitations), light-headedness (see Dizziness or Light-Headedness When Standing Up and see Postprandial Hypotension), fainting (see Fainting), and swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet (see Swelling). However, these symptoms do not necessarily indicate a heart disorder. For example, chest pain may be due to a respiratory or digestive disorder rather than to a heart disorder. Shortness of breath is often due to a respiratory disorder (see Shortness of Breath). Fatigue can be caused by a wide variety of disorders (see Fatigue).

Symptoms of peripheral blood vessel disorders vary depending on where the affected blood vessels are located. Symptoms may include pain (see Limb Pain), muscle cramps, muscle fatigue, light-headedness, swelling, numbness, and a change in skin color of the affected part of the body.