You know how important it is to understand your doctor’s explanations of medical conditions, test results, and other information about your health—but when it comes to heart health, the terminology can leave you scratching your head. A cardiologist’s vocabulary is filled with acronyms such as CABG, STEMI, CAD, EKG, and PCI, which can be confusing to anyone without a medical degree.
Speaking the same language as your doctor can be very helpful, says Erica Jones, MD, a cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell.
“Knowing some medical lingo makes it easier to follow your physician,” Dr. Jones says. “Having said that, if your doctor says something you don’t understand, always ask for clarification rather than just letting a conversation continue.”
Instructions for taking medications are particularly important. For example, blood pressure medications called alpha-blockers can make patients dizzy when they stand up, so the drug should be taken at night. “If the patient doesn’t understand that, he or she may take the medication in the morning and put themselves at risk of falling,” Dr. Jones explains.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
To get the most out of your appointment:
- Bring a friend or loved one with you; that person can help you remember all that was said once the appointment is over.
- Take notes during your appointment (or ask your companion to do so) and review them later to make sure everything is clear. You can also ask for a written summary of your visit; if it’s not available when you leave the office, ask that it be mailed or e-mailed to you.
- Speak up when you hear something you don’t understand. Don’t feel self-conscious; if you have questions, chances are many other patients do, too.
Common Sources of Confusion
In some situations, misunderstandings are due to similar-sounding tests and procedures, says Joy Gelbman, MD, a cardiologist with NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell.
“A common source of confusion is the difference between an electrocardiogram (or EKG) and an echocardiogram (echo),” she says.
“The first is a piece of paper that gives us information about the electrical signal of the heart; the second is an ultrasound that gives us information about the heart structure and function.”
Another example is the difference between an angiogram and angioplasty. An angiogram is a diagnostic test in which dye is injected in the heart’s arteries to look for blockages; an angioplasty is a procedure that opens a blockage in a heart artery with a balloon and/or a stent.
The arteries of the heart, also known as coronary arteries, are often mentioned by cardiologists, since blockage in these blood vessels can lead to a heart attack. The coronary arteries include the left main coronary artery (LM), left anterior descending coronary artery (LAD), left circumflex artery (LCirc), and the right main coronary artery (RCA). They all supply blood to the heart muscle to keep it beating, and they are all subject to blockage.
If you or a loved one has had a heart attack, you may have heard it identified as a STEMI or NSTEMI. STEMI stands for ST elevation myocardial infarction, which refers to total blockage of a coronary artery, while NSTEMI stands for non–ST elevation myocardial infarction and refers to partial blockage. “These are two different types of heart attacks that should be explained fully by your doctor,” Dr. Jones says.
More on Meanings
Another term that is sometimes misunderstood is “cardiovascular,” which refers to the heart and the body’s entire network of veins and arteries; many patients tend to think the term refers only to the heart.
Dr. Gelbman notes that patients often think of “palpitations” as a diagnosis, when it’s really a symptom; it can be a sign of an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia). She also says the term “heart murmur” is often misunderstood: It refers to a whooshing or swishing sound a doctor hears through a stethoscope when blood rushes through the heart. A heart murmur may be a symptom of a defective heart valve, or it may be harmless.
“During your appointment, ask for clarification if anything is said that you don’t understand,” Dr. Gelbman says. “Also, if a question occurs to you after the visit, call your doctor’s office and speak to your doctor’s nurse or leave a message. Your thorough understanding can be a key factor in achieving the best health outcome for you.”
THE “LANGUAGE” OF THE HEART
Like any field of specialty medicine, cardiology has its own set of acronyms and abbreviations. Here are some commonly used terms and their meanings:
AF or Afib: Atrial fibtrillaion
CABG: Coronary artery bypass surgery
CAC: Coronary artery calcium (calcium buildup can lead to blocked arteries)
CAD: Coronary artery disease
CHF: Congestive heart failure
CVD: Cardiovascular disease
ECG or EKG: Electrocardiogram
ETT: Exercise tolerance test (also called an exercise treadmill test)
Hypertension: High blood pressure
MI: Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
PCI: Percutaneous coronary intervention (a diagnostic procedure that uses a catheter in an artery to look for blockages; it may involve putting in a stent if one is needed)
PET: Positron emission tomography (a procedure in which a radioactive substance is injected and a computer takes images of your heart)
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