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A Cardiomyopathy Overview: What You Need to Know

What is Cardiomyopathy?

With around 600,000 Americans dying of heart disease per year, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. Although coronary heart disease is the most common, there are other heart conditions that contribute to heart disease and heart failure, such as cardiomyopathy. But what is cardiomyopathy? In this article, we will explain what cardiomyopathy is, its causes, signs and symptoms, and treatment options.

What is Cardiomyopathy?

There are three types of cardiomyopathy: dilated, hypertrophic, and restrictive. The most common is dilated cardiomyopathy which occurs in 90% of cases.

Cardiomyopathy is a condition that affects the muscles of the heart. It most commonly affects people between the ages of 20 and 50. It causes the heart muscles to become thick, rigid, or enlarged, and in rare instances, the diseased muscle tissue may even be replaced with scar tissue. Over time, the heart becomes weaker and is incapable of pumping enough blood throughout the body. If left untreated, cardiomyopathy can cause an arrhythmia and lead to heart failure.

What Are the Causes of Cardiomyopathy?

Many factors contribute to cardiomyopathy. Causes can be genetic or acquired, where it develops due to another condition, such as hypertension, valvular disease, infections, or toxins. Around 30% to 35% of cases with dilated cardiomyopathy are due to genetics.

Some long-term side effects of viral infections can contribute to cardiomyopathy. Also, certain types of chemotherapy can directly or indirectly affect the heart muscle, leading to cardiomyopathy.

Extreme stress can also be a crucial factor — excessive stress over a long time can negatively affect the heart muscle. A well-known example of this is Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

It’s important to note that some people don’t show signs of cardiomyopathy in the early stages, and some don’t experience symptoms at all. It’s essential that people learn to recognize any early signs and symptoms so they can seek treatment right away when it’s most effective:

  • Shortness of breath, especially while performing physically demanding tasks
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Swollen or bulging veins, particularly in the neck
  • Edema in the ankles, feet, legs, or abdomen
  • Difficulty laying on your back
  • Irregular heartbeat or arrhythmias, where the heartbeat is too fast or too slow
  • Heart murmurs

Many of these symptoms may not occur until the heart begins to weaken in the later stages of cardiomyopathy.

How Do You Diagnose Cardiomyopathy?

The first step is your medical history and a physical examination. Your doctor may suspect you have cardiomyopathy based on that and run some diagnostic tests to assess your heart. These types of tests include:

  • A chest x-ray to detect heart enlargement.
  • An electrocardiogram to look at the size of your heart, detect any irregular heartbeats or abnormal rhythms, or check for signs of a possible heart attack.
  • An echocardiogram to check your heart’s size and shape, as well as the function of the heart. It can also check the valves and note any thickening of the valves or walls.
  • A stress test to assess your heart while doing some physical activities.
  • Blood tests can also be done to check for certain markers that assess heart function.

What Treatment Options Are Available?

The primary goal is to alleviate symptoms and prevent your heart from progressing into heart failure. First and foremost, you will need to make significant lifestyle changes. Regardless of treatment, if you do not modify your lifestyle, your heart will continue to weaken.

Examples of lifestyle changes include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Reducing alcohol intake
  • Daily exercise
  • Low sodium diet
  • Weight loss (if you are overweight)

Treatment options depend on what needs correcting and what stage of cardiomyopathy you are in. Some people can take medications, while others may require surgical intervention involving devices or implants. The last resort is a heart transplant, which has its own set of challenges.

Final Thoughts

This is an important condition to understand because, if left untreated, it can lead to heart failure. It’s essential that you learn to recognize the signs and symptoms and see your doctor immediately if you experience any. If detected and managed early, treatment can significantly reduce the progression to heart failure.

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