Medications are typically prescribed to help you manage symptoms or side effects of various health conditions. Heart medications are no different. Benjamin Swanson, M.D., a cardiologist for Henry Ford Health, explains that prescribing heart medication is very dependent on a patient’s specific health needs and what symptoms or heart conditions they are being treated for.
“When it comes to your heart, medications are prescribed based on your current heart health as well as your risk for future heart complications,” says Dr. Swanson. “There is a spectrum of need - a patient could be on medication as a preventative measure to avoid a possible heart diagnosis while a different patient could be on medication to help them manage symptoms associated with cardiovascular disease after having a heart attack.”
Prescribing Heart Medication
There are several different scenarios when your cardiologist might recommend medication for your heart, including:
- You have a history of heart problems or are recovering from a cardiac episode.
- You have a diagnosed heart condition.
- You are experiencing symptoms related to a potential heart condition (such as chest pain).
- You are healthy but want to protect your heart from heart problems in the future.
Every patient is unique, so how your specific heart issues or concerns are treated may vary. Dr. Swanson provides some insight into how common heart health situations are typically treated with medication:
Medication For A Recovering Heart
If you have already had a heart attack, your heart is at a weaker state and needs to be protected from possible damage. The medications you are prescribed allows the heart muscle to heal without risk of another heart attack or stroke.
- High-intensity statin: Prescribed to make sure your cholesterol levels are staying low. “Your cholesterol levels actually need to be at a lower than ‘normal’ level following a heart episode or if you are at risk for one,” says Dr. Swanson.
- Daily aspirin therapy: Helps reduce inflammation of the heart muscles and prevents the development of blood clots.
- Platelet blockers: Block blood clot formation in the arteries.
- Beta blockers: Help lower blood pressure to prevent future heart attacks.
- ACE inhibitors: Help improve recovery of the heart muscle.
Treating Heart Conditions With Medication
When you have blockages in your arteries, many of the same medications that are used to treat a patient following a heart attack are used to treat cardiovascular disease. They are often prescribed in more aggressive regiments to have more of a positive impact on your heart.
Managing Cardiac Chest Pain
If you are starting to experience symptoms such as angina (chest pain), this could be a sign of possible blockages in the heart. After your doctor does thorough testing, it can be determined what sort of treatment would be most beneficial to you.
- As-needed nitroglycerin: Reduces chest pain by relaxing blood vessels around the heart while increasing oxygen-rich blood flow.
- Long-acting nitroglycerin: Prescribed if pain is frequent enough and a lower dose isn’t effective anymore.
- Calcium channel blocker: Prevents calcium from entering the heart, allowing the heart muscles to relax.
- Beta blockers: Slows the heart rate to reduce the frequentness of chest pain.
Heart Medication For Low To No Risk Cases
“When a patient comes in with no history of heart problems, they are often hoping to gauge their heart health and check for any cardiac risk factors,” says Dr. Swanson. “In these cases, we start by looking at blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well as taking note of the patient’s age, overall health and family medical history.”
Early blood pressure and cholesterol screenings can help your doctor determine your risk for cholesterol buildup. Depending on your risk, your doctor will likely prescribe a statin to help you lower your cholesterol levels and teach you about how managing these levels can prevent a heart disease diagnosis in the future.
Factors That Influence Your Heart Medications
“Like with any medication, there are instances when your heart medication may need to be changed or adjusted,” says Dr. Swanson. “Taking certain medications over time can sometimes make that dosage more of less effective.”
Some other factors that could impact dosage or the type of medication you are prescribed include:
- Having had heart surgery or a stent put in
- Significant changes in your blood pressure or cholesterols levels
- Increase in your risk for a heart condition or the diagnosis of a heart condition
- Development of new or worsening symptoms or side effects
- Gender or genetic-based risk factors
- Other medications you are taking
If you need to change the dose of your medication, talk with your doctor first. Depending on your condition and why you need to change dosage, they can advise on if you should wait until your next appointment to be seen again.
“In any circumstance, do not stop taking medications abruptly, unless advised by your doctor,” warns Dr. Swanson. “There can be worse complications that arise because you stop taking a medication than if you continue with minor side effects. Additionally, many medications require you to be weaned off over time to avoid possible complications.”
If you are concerned about your heart health, talk with your primary care providers about seeing a heart expert. This is especially important if you have a family history (in a first-degree relative such as a parent, sibling or child) of heart complications. A cardiologist can help evaluate your potential risk and determine if starting medication for your heart health is right for you.
Dr. Benjamin Swanson is a cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital and Henry Ford Medical Centers – Fairlane and Plymouth.