Cardiology and Heart Health

Specialties and qualifications of a cardiologist

Cardiology is a field of medicine that specializes in the health of the heart, as well as the rest of the cardiovascular system.

Most patients who go to cardiologists are having a problem with their heart. For instance, they may have an illness, disorder, injury or defect that prevents their heart from functioning properly. One of the most common ailments that a cardiologist treats is heart attacks. Some other heart problems include cardiac arrhythmias, genetic heart abnormalities, injuries to the heart, congestive heart failure and aortic stenosis (narrowing of the vessel).

A cardiologist also treats disorders and illnesses that affect the rest of the cardiovascular system, including the extensive network of blood vessels, veins and arteries that permeate the body. Cardiologists help patients keep their cardiovascular systems as healthy as possible and work to help prevent cardiac problems.

Doctors specializing in nuclear cardiology may inject dyes to measure and evaluate how well blood is flowing within the arteries. During the procedure, doctors can locate plaque deposits, collect blood samples and assess the functioning ability of the heart's chambers and valves to see if there are blockages or narrowing of the arteries. 

Cardiac electrophysiology focuses on studying and treating the heart's electrical activity, and echocardiography takes a moving sonogram of your heart's activity.

Becoming a cardiologist requires years of education and extensive specialized training. A cardiologist must complete general medical school, in addition to training in internal medicine and cardiology, which often adds up to ten or more years of education.

A cardiologist also must complete an internal medicine residency and a cardiovascular fellowship training residency. The last step toward becoming certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine as a cardiologist is passing the cardiovascular disease certification examination.

Seeing a cardiologist

Unless you have an emergency, your first visit with a cardiologist is often a consultation. The doctor will go over your medical history and your family's medical history. He or she will also perform a complete physical health screening, checking your weight, height, blood pressure and lungs.

A cardiologist also will discuss any symptoms with you. In most cases, he or she will order additional diagnostic tests, which may include internal imaging tests, blood tests and electronic heart monitoring.

A cardiologist then will discuss treatment options after diagnosing the problem. Treatments will vary depending on the type and severity of the problem. Minor problems, such as high blood pressure, are often treated with nothing more than lifestyle changes and, possibly, medication. These treatments usually involve changes in diet, starting an exercise regimen and reducing stress levels. Medications for lowering blood pressure or thinning the blood may be required as well.

More serious problems, such as heart attacks, may require more extensive treatment options, such as surgery. Depending on the issue, a cardiologist might elect to put in a pacemaker, which is an artificial heartbeat regulator. More complicated heart surgeries, such as coronary artery bypass surgery, usually need the expertise of a heart surgeon. Coronary angioplasty and stent placement are two common procedures that a cardiologist may choose.

A cardiologist will often treat emergency heart problems, such as heart attacks and heart injuries, often treating the patient in an emergency care center and following up with them for several months after such an occurrence.

Choosing a cardiologist

Your primary care physician will generally refer you to a cardiologist when he or she suspects you have a problem with your heart or cardiovascular system. Some problems may include chronic high blood pressure and heart disease. Some symptoms may include chest pains, irregular heartbeat, heart palpitations, severe heart murmurs, shortness of breath and frequent dizziness.

If you experience any of these symptoms, or suspect a heart problem, you can make an appointment to see a cardiologist on you own, but keep in mind that some insurance plans require a referral from a general doctor.

If you know that you'll need the services of an cardiologist, contact your health insurance company to make sure that this medical specialty is covered. Read through the listing of cardiologist in the provider directory available from your health insurance company. Carefully research the cardiologist you are considering. Verify their qualifications, education and continuing education by consulting Angie's List, where you can also see member reviews and rankings.

Pediatric cardiology

A pediatric cardiologist diagnoses and treats systemic disorders affecting a child's cardiovascular system, including congenital heart defects, heart muscle disorders, rhythm disturbances and hypertension. These physicians also care for patients who no longer fall into the pediatric age range when an underlying congenital heart defect or other condition requires specialized treatment, such as long QT syndrome, a disorder affecting the electrical system of the heart.

LEARN MORE: Angie's List Guide to Pediatric Cardiology

Pediatric cardiac surgery

Pediatric heart surgeons typically work at children's hospitals, and are prepared to handle the surgical cardiac needs of young patients. That can include rerouting blood flow to the heart, treating aortic valve problems and dealing with other cardiac issues.

LEARN MORE: Angie's List Guide to Pediatric Cardiac Surgery

Cardiac surgeons

Cardiac surgeons, or heart surgeons, perform procedures for a variety of heart diseases, such as blockage, coronary artery disease, congenital defects and the hardening of arteries. Some of these surgeons specialize in specific procedures or patients. For example, a pediatric heart surgeon usually operates on babies, toddlers and young children or teens. Other surgeons may specialize in procedures such as heart transplants or open heart surgery or pacemakers.

LEARN MORE: Angie's List Guide to Cardiac Surgeons

Interventional Cardiologists

Interventional cardiologists primarily diagnose and treat conditions like coronary artery disease, atherosclerosis and peripheral arterial disease.

Should a cardiologist diagnose serious conditions that require surgery, like heart damage or blocked arteries, he or she will work with heart surgeons to determine the best course of treatment. After surgery, you'll return to the care of a cardiologist to ensure proper recovery.

LEARN MORE: Angie's List Guide to Interventional Cardiologists

Vascular surgery

A vascular surgeon diagnoses and manages diseases affecting any part of the vascular system, which includes the arteries, veins and lymph glands that run throughout the body. This type of surgeon does not handle arterial issues affecting the heart or the brain, which are generally reserved for cardiac surgeons and neurosurgeons, respectively.

LEARN MORE: Angie's List Guide to Vascular Surgery

Thoracic surgery

A thoracic surgeon specializes in organs in and near the thorax, including the heart, lungs and esophagus. These surgeons have received specialized training at diagnosing and treating potentially dangerous conditions such as lung cancer and esophageal hernias.

LEARN MORE: Angie's List guide to Thoracic Surgery

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