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It may be helpful to think of the heart from the viewpoint of its function as a pump.  As a pump, it has several components found in any pump.
Valves to insure the proper direction and timing of blood flow.
An electrical system to cause the heart to contract in a regular and coordinated manner
A fuel line system to supply the heart muscle cells with their own blood supply
The heart muscle cells supply the forces to pump the blood forward when they contract
The heart works normally when all of the different components are functioning in a normal and coordinated way. 
Normal heart function:  http://www.cardiosmart.org/CardioSmart/Default.aspx?id=38


Cardiac (heart) disease occurs when there is a malfunction or damage involving any of these components.  Cardiac disease involving one system will usually result in malfunction or damage in one or more of the other components.


Valves:

There are four valves in the heart to help control the timing and direction of blood flow.  The abnormalities of the valves are either to “leak” or become narrow “stenotic”.  At times more than one valve may be involved, and one valve may be leaking and stenotic. 
http://www.cardiosmart.org/HeartDisease/CTT.aspx?id=112

All muscles require an electrical stimulus before they will contract.  The heart is no different.  Under normal circumstances, the electrical activity that causes the heart to beat comes from the sino-atrial node that is located in the top right chamber.  The normal heart rate is determined by how often the SA node sends out an electrical signal.  The normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minutes.  The SA node is under the influence of the nervous and hormone systems. The electrical stimulus from the SA node causes the top chambers (atria) to contract and pump blood into the bottom chambers (ventricle).  The electrical activity gets from the top chambers to the bottom chambers over one special conduction system. Then the bottom chambers contract to pump the blood to the lungs or to the body.


Normal electrical activity: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/hhw/hhw_electrical.html


Arrhythmia:

An abnormality of the heart rhythm is called an arrhythmia. There are many different types of arrhythmias.  Many of them occur frequently in patients with no heart disease and are not a risk to the individuals.  There are some types of irregular heartbeats which are considered to be abnormal but not life threatening and then a small percentage can be considered to be potentially life threatening.

http://www.cardiosmart.org/HeartDisease/CTT.aspx?id=232


Atrial Fibrillation:

The most common pathological heartbeat is Atrial Fibrillation.  It is present more often in older patients, and may be seen in up to 20% of patients 80 years old or older.  With proper treatment A Fib is compatible with a normal life.     

http://www.cardiosmart.org/conditioncenters/ctt.aspx?id=2734
Garrett L. Rogers, MS, MD, MBA, FACC
Duke Trained
Invasive/Interventional Cardiologist
3080 Henderson Drive,  Jacksonville, NC, 28546
Phone:  (910) 353-3000 
   Fax: (910) 238-4456