Trouble sleeping, a sore joint, occasional headaches… there are a lot of things people tend to ignore when it comes to health. But when your doctor says “abnormal heart”, your ears perk up. During your regular visits, your doctor will put a (sometimes cold) stethoscope to your chest and listen to your heart. While every heartbeat is unique, they are listening for certain sonic irregularities that could indicate a current or future issue.
In order to understand heart murmurs, how they are detected and what they might mean, we spoke with Nickalaus Gramze, MD, a cardiologist at Banner Health in Arizona.
What is a heart murmur?
A heart murmur is the sound of blood coming from the heart. When your doctor listens to your heart, they hear the sound of blood rushing through the chambers and surrounding veins and arteries. The sound of blood flow is a good thing, but extra “whooshing” or “swishing” noises can indicate impeded or altered blood flow.
Dr. Gramze described heart murmurs with an analogy. “Water flowing down a peaceful river has a quiet sound, but if there is a tight bend in the river or when rocks get in the way and create rapids, the sound changes. The same is true with the flow of blood through our hearts.”
Is a heart murmur dangerous?
It’s a very common misconception that heart murmurs are dangerous. The truth is that the murmur is just a sound. However, these sounds can be very reliable signals for dangerous conditions. When your doctor detects a worrisome heart murmur, they will often recommend further investigation, often in the form of an echocardiogram or electrocardiogram. Through these methods, doctors will get a better look at the rhythm, movement, strength and anatomy of your heart.
What does my heart murmur mean?
Although some telltale sounds can be associated with certain conditions, detecting the heart murmur is just one step in identifying the concern. When combined with other evidence, such as the echocardiogram and electrocardiogram, the puzzle pieces begin to form a clearer picture of what is actually going on inside your chest.
There are steps you can take on your own to help inform your doctor when a heart murmur is found. Consider these questions and bring the answers to your doctor:
- Do you often experience chest pain?
- Are you quickly exhausted when exercising?
- Have you noticed any irregularity in your heartbeat?
- Does your family have a history of heart disease?
- Are you often short of breath?
When a heart murmur is detected, it can mean many things. Because everyone’s body is unique, the shape (and sound) of our hearts can vary from person to person. Benign heart murmurs (innocent heart murmurs) are not uncommon; however, heart murmurs can sometimes appear before any other symptoms are present. In adults, heart murmurs can be an indicator for many forms of heart disease. When your doctor detects a noteworthy murmur, the right thing to do investigate further.
Are heart murmurs more common among children?
A growing heart and body changes shape and position over time. As a child’s heart develops, so will the sounds it makes. For this reason, heart murmurs are found in many children during routine well-child visits. Dr. Gramze mentioned that “while many murmurs in children are benign sounds found in a growing heart, congenital heart defects are a first concern when a worrisome heart murmur is detected. Follow your doctor’s recommendation for subsequent tests and imaging.”
When should I be tested for a heart murmur?
If you answered “yes” to any of the questions listed above or if you feel concerned about your heart’s health for any other reason, you should set up a visit with your physician to learn more. Your doctor will listen to your heart in addition to checking your heart rate and measuring blood pressure. If your doctor is concerned about any signs of a heart problem, he or she may then request you perform an electrocardiogram and/or an echocardiogram. These are all important steps in evaluating heart health and great reasons to make sure you are scheduling these regular appointments. Contact a Banner Health physician to set up your appointment today.