A heart attack - also known as a myocardial infarction, or MI, occurs if the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a section of heart muscle suddenly becomes blocked (ischemia). If blood flow isn’t restored quickly, the section of heart muscle begins to die. Without quick treatment, a heart attack can lead to serious problems and even death.
People with coronary artery disease are at risk for heart attacks. When the coronary arteries become narrowed with plaque, the blood flow becomes lessened, which can cause angina or chest pain. Effects of angina are temporary and reversible.
As the plaque hardens, it may rupture and form a blood clot that can also cut off the blood flow to the heart muscle and cause a heart attack. Because the heart muscle is not getting any oxygen, it dies causing permanent damage. This is what happens during a heart attack. The amount of damage to the heart muscle depends on the size of the area supplied by the blocked artery and the time between injury and treatment.
The heart muscle heals by forming a scar in the damaged area which takes about eight weeks. However, since the scar tissue does not contract, the heart’s pumping action may become diminished, depending on the size and location of the damage, weakening the heart.
Heart Attack Symptoms include:
- Crushing pain, discomfort, pressure or heaviness in the chest, arm or below the breastbone
- Discomfort radiating to the shoulders, back, neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or arm
- Fullness, indigestion or heartburn, or choking feeling
- Sweating, nausea, vomiting or dizziness
- Extreme weakness, anxiety or shortness of breath
- Rapid or irregular heartbeats
- Symptoms of 30-minutes duration not relieved by nitroglycerin or rest
- Some people, especially diabetics, may suffer a “silent” heart attack and experience no symptoms.
- Women’s Heart Attack Symptoms (see also Women at Heart)Although a man’s symptoms are well-known, such as chest pain, a woman’s heart problem may appear as fatigue, jaw or neck pain, or shortness of breath. If a woman does not recognize these symptoms, it can make detection difficult. But once these symptoms are evaluated and analyzed, St. Vincent’s Regional Heart & Vascular Center can provide superlative treatment.
Heart Attack Risk Factors
- Age. Men over 45 and women over 55 are more at risk for heart attack than younger people.
- Smoking damages walls of arteries allowing plaque to form and also increases risk of blood clots, which will slow or stop blood flow and cause a heart attack.
- Diabetes greatly increases your risk of a heart attack and vascular disease.
- High blood pressure can damage arteries.
- Cholesterol or triglyceride levels. Cholesterol contributes to the formation of plaque in the arteries which decreases blood flow. In particular low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol) can greatly impact artery narrowing. A high level of triglycerides, a type of blood fat related to diet, also can contribute to an increased risk of blockage and heart attack.
- Family history of heart attack increases your risk. Genetics may also play a role in a raised level of cholesterol or blood pressure.
- Obesity. Obesity increases your risk of a heart attack because it contributes to high cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes.
- Lack of physical activity. Exercise lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, encourages overall cardiovascular fitness and lessens risk of obesity.
- Stress may contribute to overeating and also raises blood pressure.
- Illegal drug use can cause coronary artery spasms that can lead to a heart attack.
Your St. Vincent’s cardiologist will evaluate you for heart attack risk factors during your annual physical exam.
However, if you suspect you are having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.
You will be evaluated in the Emergency Department of the hospital, where you will describe your symptoms, be monitored and tested with the latest technology including electrocardiogram, blood test, chest x-ray, echocardiogram, nuclear scan, coronary catheterization (angiogram), exercise stress test, cardiac computerized tomography CT scan).
See “Coronary Artery Disease Diagnosis” for a description of these tests.
The goal to prevent damage during a heart attack is to restore blood flow as quickly as possible. You may be treated with medications such as aspirin, thrombolytics, blood thinners, pain relievers, nitroglycerin, beta blockers and cholesterol-lowering drugs (see Coronary Artery Disease).You may also undergo angioplasty or coronary bypass surgery to treat your heart attack.
Recent advances have introduced drug-eluting stents, which slowly released medications to keep the artery open.
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