If you have signs of a heart problem, your doctor may send you to a cardiologist, or heart specialist.
Cardiologists work closely with primary care doctors, as well as heart and vascular surgeons, to care for people with many types of heart and blood vessel conditions.
Find out how cardiologists diagnose and treat heart and blood vessel problems, and what questions to ask at your first visit.
What Is a Cardiologist?
A cardiologist is a doctor who diagnoses, treats, and helps prevent heart and blood vessel conditions. To become a cardiologist, a doctor must undergo several years of training, including:
- Four years of medical school
- Three years of general internal medicine training
- Three or more years in specialized cardiology training
Many cardiologists also choose to become board-certified by taking a rigorous exam that measures their expertise in diagnostics, patient care, and patient education.
What Do Cardiologists Treat?
Cardiologists diagnose, treat, and manage many types of heart and blood vessel conditions, including:
- Coronary artery disease, also known as heart disease, which occurs when the blood vessels that bring nutrients to your heart are blocked
- Heart attack, which happens when blood flow to your heart is blocked
- Heart failure, which happens when your heart can’t pump effectively
- Heart rhythm problems, also called arrhythmias, which happens when your heart beats too fast, too slow, or in an irregular way
- Valve problems, which happen when your heart valves don’t open or close properly
Cardiologists can also help you prevent heart disease through risk assessments, which look at your family history, medical history, and lifestyle. If you are at risk for a heart problem, your cardiologist can suggest lifestyle changes that may help lower your risk and recommend regular health screenings to keep an eye on your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and other risk factors.
Diagnosing heart problems
To make a diagnosis, your cardiologist will start by talking with you about your medical history, lifestyle, and symptoms, and by giving you a physical exam. He or she may also order tests that show how well your heart works, including:
- An electrocardiogram, which measures your heart rate and rhythm
- An echocardiogram, which creates pictures of your heart
- A stress test, which shows how well your heart works during activity
- A cardiac catheterization, which can show blocked arteries and other heart problems
Treating heart problems
Your cardiologist will develop a treatment plan based on your diagnosis, as well as your medical history, symptoms, and lifestyle. Some treatments can include:
- Lifestyle changes that can help lower your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, quit smoking, and manage stress
- Medications to control high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart rate or rhythm
- Catheter-based procedures that can open blocked arteries or fix heart rhythm problems
- In more serious cases, surgery
How to Talk to Your Cardiologist
Before your appointment, it’s a good idea to write down a list of your symptoms. Your cardiologist will want to know:
- What symptoms you have
- When your symptoms started
- If you have chest pain, what your chest pain feels like
- What makes your symptoms worse; for example, do you feel worse when walking?
- What makes your symptoms better; for example, do you feel better when you rest?
- If you have pain in other parts of your body; for example, your jaw, neck, back, arms, or shoulders
- What medications you take
Some questions you may want to ask, even if they might seem simple, can include:
- What is my diagnosis?
- Do I need other tests?
- What can I expect during these tests?
- What are my treatment options?
- What are the benefits and risks of each type of treatment?
- What lifestyle changes should I make?
To learn more, visit the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute or call 1-855-UPMC-HVI (876-2484).