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What is the Cardiovascular System? A Medical Assistant’s Guide

The cardiovascular system consists of the heart and blood vessels. The heart pumps blood through the blood vessels. Oxygen and nutrients are transferred to organs of the body. Blood vessels carry carbon dioxide and waste products out of the body.

A physician listens to heart sounds to diagnose certain conditions. A medical assistant will take a patient’s blood pressure to assist the physician in diagnosing the health of the heart and cardiovascular system. There are also common diseases and disorders a medical assistant must become familiar with to assist in further testing and diagnosis by the physician.

The Heart

The heart is an organ, located in the cardiovascular system, about the size of a loose fist. It is made up of the cardiac membrane, the heart wall, heart chambers, and heart valves. The pericardium membrane covers the heart and the large blood vessels that are attached.

The walls of the heart are made up of three layers, the epicardium, myocardium, and endocardium. The heart also contains four hollow chambers. The upper chambers of the heart, or atria, receive blood returning to the heart from the lungs and the body. The bottom chambers of the heart, or ventricles, pump blood into the arteries sending blood to the lungs and body.

The Cardiac Cycle

Every heartbeat makes up one cardiac cycle. Some of the factors that influence the cardiac cycle include exercise, the cardiac control center, and body temperature.

Exercise – Exercise can increase the heart rate, since the skeletal muscles need additional oxygen.

Cardiac Control Center – The cardiac control center is located in the medulla oblongata of the brain. It sends nervous impulses to decrease the heart rate if the heart rate rises. Conversely, when the heart rate falls, it sends impulses to increase the heart rate.

Body Temperature – An increase in body temperature usually means an increase in heart rate. For example, a patient may have an increased heart rate when having a fever.

The Cardiac Conduction System

The cardiac conduction system consists of a group of cardiovascular structures that send electrical impulses through the heart. When the cardiac muscles receive an electrical impulse, they contract. Physicians will use an EKG to tell if the cardiac conduction system is working properly.

The Circulatory System

Blood flows through the body through two main circuits, the pulmonary circuit that provides oxygen to the body and the systemic circuit that distributes oxygen to it.

The Blood Vessels

The blood vessels in the body circulate blood from the heart to cells and back again. The vessels involved are arteries, veins, and capillaries. Arteries are the strongest of the blood vessels. Arteries carry blood away from the heart. Veins are blood vessels that carry blood toward the heart.

Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is the force that blood exerts on the inner walls of the blood vessels. The two types of blood pressure are systolic pressure, when the ventricles contract, and diastolic pressure, when the ventricles relax. Blood pressure is reported as the systolic number over the diastolic number.

A healthy blood pressure is less than 120/80. Factors that influence blood pressure include cardiac output, blood volume, vasoconstriction, blood thickness, and condition of the vessels.

Common Diseases and Disorders of the Cardiovascular System

Some of the more common diseases and disorders of the cardiovascular system include aneurysms, arrhythmias, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, hypertension, myocardial infarction, and varicose veins.

Aneurysm – An aneurysm is a ballooned, weakened arterial wall. The cause of aneurysms is unknown. One risk to developing an aneurysm is the hardening of fatty plaque deposits within the arteries which is associated with a high cholesterol diet. Smoking and obesity can increase the risk of an aneurysm.

It is estimated that over 6 million Americans have an unruptured brain aneurysm, according to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation.. There are usually no signs or symptoms associated with an aneurysm. The treatment for an aneurysm is surgery to repair it.

Arrhythmia – An arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm where the heart beats too slowly or too quickly. The most common type is atrial fibrillation, or a sporadic and rapid beating of the atria.

Arrhythmias usually occur when electrical impulses from the cardiac conduction system do not flow correctly through the heart. Symptoms of arrhythmias include shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, rapid or slow heart rate, a fluttering in the chest, and/or chest pain. There are many treatments that start by treating the underlying cause of the arrhythmia.

Congestive Heart Failure – Congestive heart failure is the weakening of the heart over time, with an eventual condition of the heart’s inability to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.

There are many causes of congestive heart failure including smoking, being overweight, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, excessive alcohol consumption, and diabetes. More than 5.7 million adults in the U.S. had heart failure from 2013-2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A couple of the signs and symptoms include shortness of breath and constant wheezing. Common treatment for congestive heart failure is medication to slow a rapid heartbeat, diuretics for edema and fluid accumulation in the lungs, and medication to reduce blood pressure.

Coronary Artery Disease – Also known as atherosclerosis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that over 600,000 people die from heart disease every year. The condition is caused by the narrowing of coronary arteries from a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and calcium.

There are usually no signs or symptoms of coronary artery disease until a heart attack occurs. Treatments include lowering cholesterol, a low-fat diet, exercise, and medications to slow a rapid heartbeat.

Hypertension – Hypertension is defined as high blood pressure measured above 140/90. Hypertension increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and kidney failure.

It is estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that over 73 million American adults have hypertension. The causes of hypertension include a narrowing of the arteries, certain medications, kidney disease, drug use, obesity, smoking, a high-sodium diet, excessive alcohol consumption, and diabetes. Initial treatment of hypertension involves control of the underlying cause.

Myocardial Infarction – Also known as a heart attack, this is a lack of blood supply that causes damage to the cardiac muscle. The causes of heart attacks include blockage of coronary arteries or drug use that spasm a coronary artery.

Symptoms of heart attacks include a squeezing chest pain; pain in the shoulders, arms, back, teeth, or jaw; chronic pain in the upper abdomen; shortness of breath; sweating; dizziness; fainting; nausea; or vomiting.

Every year approximately 790,000 Americans suffer a heart attack, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If a patient is experiencing a heart attack, the first thing to do is chew an aspirin. If the patient is unconscious, or has no pulse and is not breathing, the medical professional should perform CPR, use a defibrillator to jumpstart the heart, and/or administer a drug to destroy the blood clots that block a coronary artery.

Medications should be administered to thin the blood and slow the heart rate. Surgery may be needed to replace or repair the blocked coronary arteries, if necessary.

Varicose Veins – These are dilated veins, typically in the legs. Varicose veins can be caused by sitting or standing for long periods of time, loss of elasticity in the veins, obesity, pregnancy, or hormone replacement therapy.

People may have a genetic predisposition for varicose veins. It is estimated that about 20 percent of adults will get varicose veins at some point in their lives, according to the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care.

Symptoms include leg discomfort, ankle discoloration, vein clusters, and enlarged, dark veins seen through the skin. Some treatments involve laser surgery, sclerotherapy, vein stripping, and endoscopic vein surgery.

Did learning about the heart and cardiovascular system interest you? Ready for an exciting new career in the medical assisting field?

The Medical Assistant program at Hunter Business School prepares competent, entry-level medical assistants in the cognitive (knowledge), psychomotor (skills), and affective (behavior) learning domains required for professional practice.

The Medical Assistant program provides hands-on experience in a medical facility where you can foster professional relationships with real patients. Medical Assistant students spend 160 hours in an externship in a real-world medical work environment where they are supervised and taught in order to gain valuable on-the-job training.

Contact us today to find out more about how to become a medical assistant on Long Island.