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via flickr
via flickr

In February, we are surrounded by images of hearts—candy hearts, valentines, heart-shaped cookies, heart-shaped jewelry, etc.  But it’s the heart that you can’t see—the one that pumps blood to all your organs and keeps you ticking—that matters most.  Conveniently, February is the month we celebrate that heart, too.

In honor of National Heart Month, I wanted to get back to the basics of what makes the heart tick.  The heart is a big, strong muscle whose systems can be likened to the systems of your home—plumbing, mechanical and electric.  The plumbing of your heart is your coronary arteries, which bring fresh, oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle to give it the ability to pump blood out to your organs and extremities.  When these arteries get clogged with plaque and other deposits, the blood supply to the heart muscle slows or gets cut off, causing chest pain or even a heart attack.  In the most severe cases of blockage, parts of the heart muscle can die or become damaged, which can affect the mechanical (or pumping action) or electrical systems of the heart.

The electrical system of the heart—what we in electrophysiology study—is the complex system of electrical “wiring” within the heart that tells it when to beat.  The heart’s electrical system determines how fast or slow the heart beats, and whether it beats regularly or irregularly.  When this system is damaged (by a heart attack, heart surgery, excessive drug or alcohol use, stress, obesity, etc.) or is genetically malformed, the electricity in the heart can go hay-wire, causing the heart to beat much too fast or too slow, or to beat so irregularly that not enough blood circulates around the body.

This is where electrophysiologists come in—they fix problems with the heart’s electrical system, either through ablation (“rewiring” the electricity by creating scar tissue in the heart with radiofrequency energy) or implanting a device in the body that can tell the heart when to beat (like a pacemaker) or can shock the heart out of a potentially lethal rhythm (as a defibrillator does).

So, how can you keep your heart’s electrical system healthy and keep yourself out of the electrophysiologist’s office?  Take care of the whole house!  The plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems of the heart are intimately connected to one another, and a problem with one often means a problem for another.  According to the Heart Rhythm Society (HRS), there are many things you can do to keep all of your ticker’s systems healthy, including:

  • Making healthy lifestyle choices, like exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Quitting smoking and avoiding second hand smoke.
  • Avoiding excessive caffeine, alcohol and other substance use.
  • Developing healthy ways to manage stress and anxiety.
  • Getting regular check-ups and telling your doctor right away about any unusual symptoms.
  • Keeping your risk factors for arrhythmias in check (clogged arteries, heart valve issues, high blood pressure, diabetes, thyroid disease, obesity, high cholesterol, and a family history of heart disease, sudden death or heart rhythm problems).

Happy Valentine’s Day, and Happy National Heart Month!  Here’s to you and your healthy heart!

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