Heart disease occurs when the blood vessels of your heart are damaged or diseased. This leads to fatty deposit buildups called plaque, which can block the blood vessels or lead to blood clots. Heart disease can cause many serious health problems such as heart attack, congestive heart failure, or heart rhythm problems. All of these health issues can result in death, so treating heart disease is important.
To treat your heart disease, your doctor will probably recommend that you make important lifestyle changes, such as starting an exercise program. They’ll also likely prescribe medications. Many types of medications are available and they help treat heart disease in different ways.
The roles of heart disease medications
Your medication treatment plan will depend on how heart disease affects your cardiovascular system, meaning your heart and blood vessels. Not all heart disease is the same, so it’s not all treated the same way. For instance, your heart disease may cause excessive blood clotting, or it may increase your blood pressure, or it could do both. As a result, you may need more than one medication to manage your heart disease symptoms.
Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
ACE inhibitors prevent your body from forming angiotensin. Angiotensin is a hormone that causes your blood vessels to constrict or get smaller, which increases your blood pressure. Lower angiotensin levels, then, help widen your blood vessels and let your blood flow more easily. This reduces your blood pressure.
Your doctor may prescribe an ACE inhibitor if you have high blood pressure or heart failure. They may also prescribe one after you’ve had a heart attack. These drugs can help your heart muscle recover from the lack of oxygen during the attack. They can also help prevent another heart attack.
Examples of ACE inhibitors include:
Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs)
ARBs block the effects of angiotensin on your heart. This effect lowers your blood pressure. Your doctor may prescribe an ARB if you have high blood pressure or congestive heart failure. Like ACE inhibitors, ARBs can help you recover after a heart attack.
Examples of ARBs include:
Your doctor may prescribe an anticoagulant to prevent heart attack, stroke, or other serious health problems.
With heart disease, one of the main problems is plaque. A buildup of plaque in a blood vessel can lead to a blood clot, which can cause serious problems when it breaks free of the plaque. For instance, if the clot gets lodged in a heart vessel, it can partly or completely block blood flow to the heart and cause a heart attack. If the blood clot travels to the lungs, a pulmonary embolism could result. And if a clot lodges in the brain, a stroke could occur.
Anticoagulants work by preventing blood clots from forming. Some do this by preventing your body from making substances called clotting factors. Others keep the clotting factors from working or prevent other chemicals from forming so that clots can’t develop. Anticoagulants don’t break up existing blood clots, however.
Examples of anticoagulants include:
Your doctor may prescribe an antiplatelet drug to prevent a future heart attack if you’ve already had one or if you have plaque buildup in your arteries. They may also prescribe one if you have an abnormal heart rhythm, such as atrial fibrillation. Arrhythmias raise your risk of blood clots.
Like anticoagulants, antiplatelet medications help prevent blood clots, but they do so in a different way. They prevent your body from making a substance, called thromboxane, that tells platelets to stick together to form a clot.
Examples of antiplatelet drugs include:
Beta-blockers are a broad category of medications used to treat different problems from heart disease. In general, beta-blockers work by blocking the actions of certain chemicals that stimulate your heart, such as epinephrine (adrenaline). This allows the heart to beat more slowly and less forcefully.
Your doctor may prescribe a beta-blocker to help prevent a first heart attack as well as repeat heart attacks. They may also prescribe one if you have high blood pressure, heart failure, chest pain, or an arrhythmia.
Examples of beta-blockers include:
Calcium channel blockers
Calcium is needed for all muscles to move, including the heart. Calcium channel blockers work by regulating the amount of calcium that enters muscle cells in your heart and blood vessels. This makes your heart beat less forcefully and helps blood vessels relax.
Your doctor may prescribe a calcium channel blocker if you have high blood pressure, chest pain, or a heart arrhythmia.
Examples of calcium channel blockers include:
High cholesterol levels in your blood can cause plaque to build up. This can lead to narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can cause heart attack, stroke, or other serious problems.
Cholesterol medications help lower your levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol and raise your levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol. These steps lower your risk of plaque buildup. Some cholesterol drugs have been proven to decrease the risk of death from heart disease.
Examples of cholesterol-lowering medications include:
Digitalis medication is available as digoxin (Lanoxin). It increases the amount of calcium in the cells of your heart. This makes your heart pump harder, sending out more blood with each beat. For this reason, your doctor may prescribe digitalis medication if you have heart failure.
Digitalis medication also works by slowing certain electrical signals sent within your heart. This reduces the total number of signals, which helps reduce arrhythmias. Your doctor may also prescribe digitalis if you have an irregular heart rhythm such as atrial fibrillation.
Digoxin is often prescribed in combination with diuretics and an ACE inhibitor.
Nitrates work by widening your blood vessels so blood can pass through more easily. Your doctor may prescribe a nitrate if you have angina (chest pain) or heart failure.
Examples of nitrates include:
Talk with your doctor
The medications for heart disease can help you in different ways. To find out more about these drugs, talk to your doctor. They can put together a treatment plan for your heart disease to help you feel better.
Be sure to ask your doctor any questions you have about your condition or your treatment. Your questions might include:
- Can medications help relieve my heart disease symptoms?
- Can they reduce my risk of death from heart disease?
- Am I taking any medications that might interact with my heart disease medications?
- What lifestyle changes should I make to help improve my heart health?
- Does my heart disease increase my risk of other health problems?