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When To See a Cardiologist

If you have a family history of heart disease, you should check in with this specialist

An illustration feautring a stethoscope listening to a human heart.

It goes without saying that keeping your heart healthy is of vital importance. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for men and women in the U.S. In fact, one person dies every 36 seconds from cardiovascular disease.

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Cardiologists see people of all ages for many different reasons. But it can be difficult knowing when you need to see a cardiologist, and when another doctor is a better fit. Interventional cardiologist Grant Reed, MD, explains how to decide.

Why do you see a cardiologist?

Cardiologists treat many heart health-related issues even before they become a problem. For example, if you have a strong family history of heart disease, you might see a cardiologist to make sure you’re taking care of (and addressing) any potential long-term risk factors, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

“We see people both for prevention and treatment of cardiac issues,” says Dr. Reed. “My job as a cardiologist isn’t just to treat people when a problem occurs. I am also trying to prevent problems and help people make the best decisions about their treatment options. A lot of what I do is counseling patients through the decision-making process, and dispel any concerns or anxieties because their heart is obviously so important.”

If you’ve already been diagnosed with a heart condition, you could also have regular, ongoing check-ups to make sure all is well or to put together a treatment plan after a new diagnosis or event, like a heart attack.

“We treat a wide range of different diagnoses,” Dr. Reed says. “We get a chance to take care of people with chronic conditions, as well as acute conditions, which is when people need care the most.”

Cardiologists also work with people before and after procedures, such as getting a stent implanted for a blocked artery. But modern treatment for heart-related conditions has come a long way.

“What a lot of people aren’t aware of is that in many cases, surgery is not needed to treat their heart problem,” Dr. Reed says. “We can manage things either with medicines or with catheter-based procedures. One incredible example of this is transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), which replaces the heart valve without surgery.”

What does a cardiologist treat?

Common issues you might see a cardiologist for include:

  • High blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Care after a heart attack.
  • Heart failure.
  • Coronary artery disease.
  • Valvular heart disease.
  • Heart rhythm disorders.

When should you see a cardiologist?

Cardiologists often see people when they’re having chest discomfort or chest pain. “People experience this differently,” notes Dr. Reed. “These symptoms often feel like indigestion, so they might write them off. Having chest pain or discomfort is a very serious symptom that patients should not ignore. They should seek medical attention, whether it be through a primary care physician to start or a cardiologist.”

You should see a cardiologist if you’re experiencing these symptoms:

  • A feeling like your heart is racing very fast (often called heart palpitations).
  • Feeling like you might faint.
  • Shortness of breath that’s worsening.
  • Chest discomfort or bad indigestion that’s not going away.
  • Swelling in the legs.
  • Noticeable weight gain.

These can also be common signs of heart failure and heart disease, Dr. Reed adds, which is why it’s important to see a cardiologist or primary care physician.

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When is chest pain an emergency?

If your symptoms are rapidly getting worse, head to the emergency room, as this could indicate a serious problem with your heart. “The tipping point is different in everyone — but if your symptoms aren’t going away, seek medical attention,” says Dr. Reed. “You know your body. We commonly have aches and pains. But if something’s out of the ordinary, if you can tell something just isn’t right, don’t take a chance. Seek medical attention.”

Heart attack symptoms can look different in different people. Factors affecting how symptoms look include your age, if you are a woman or if you have diabetes, which can make it more challenging to identify a problem. “If you’re really not feeling well — if you have profound weakness, fatigue, indigestion-like symptoms that you wouldn’t typically think would be a heart attack, you should seek medical attention.”

Dr. Reed stresses that heart attacks “are often missed by people who underestimate their symptoms,” which can have dire consequences if you don’t get help right away. “It’s very hard to change the trajectory of a heart attack when it’s already a few days old,” he explains. “But if we were to catch them right away, within minutes or hours, we can oftentimes put a stent in the artery that’s blocked, improve blood flow and save you from a life of heart failure.”

If you’re unsure what you’re feeling rises to the level of an emergency, Dr. Reed says it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Always call 911 if you’re unsure. “It’s important not to dismiss your symptoms — and it’s always better to seek medical attention and be told, ‘Hey, everything’s OK,’ and have peace of mind, than it is to miss a heart attack and be left with a life of problems.”

How do you find a cardiologist?

Dr. Reed says people are often connected to a cardiologist via their primary care doctor, typically during a healthcare visit when people disclose their health concerns or worrisome symptoms. “At that point, your primary care physician will make a referral to a cardiologist and then we will see you,” says Dr. Reed.

And while certain healthcare plans allow people to see a specialist without a referral, you’ll might be connected to a cardiologist in other ways. If you’ve been hospitalized for a heart-related issue or procedure, you’ll also see a cardiologist before you’re discharged to go over next steps and then as a follow-up after you’ve been in the hospital.

What things should you share with a cardiologist?

When you see a cardiologist, Dr. Reed recommends coming prepared to talk about your current and past health situation. “We’ll discuss your eating habits, diet exercise and what your lifestyle is in general, so we can frame your cardiovascular risk,” he says.

“If you’re having active symptoms of chest discomfort, shortness of breath or palpitations, think through how you describe your symptoms. You should also be able to articulate when your symptoms started or if they’ve been worsening over time. Being ready to discuss those things openly is very important.”

Cardiologists will also want to know about your medical history. Document any previous history of heart disease or prior treatments, using as much detail as possible — for example, what arteries were treated during bypass surgery or the number and location(s) of previous stents.

If your medical records are located elsewhere, you can have records like echocardiograms or catheterizations sent to your cardiologist ahead of time. That way, they can look these over in advance and either come up with a plan or have some advance insight before your visit.

“As a cardiologist, I really enjoy getting to know my patients, medically and also personally,” Dr. Reed says. “I am always reminded that the conversations that I have on a routine basis every day are some of the most important conversations that patients have in their life. It’s a big privilege that I take very seriously.”

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