What is a heart attack?
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart muscle is interrupted. Oxygen cannot get to the heart muscle, causing tissue damage or tissue death.
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Causes, Risk Factors & Symptoms
A heart attack may be caused by:
- Thickening of the walls of the arteries feeding the heart muscle (coronary arteries)
- Build up of fatty plaques in the coronary arteries
- Narrowing of the coronary arteries
- Spasm of the coronary arteries
- Development of a blood clot in the coronary arteries
- Embolism that affects the coronary arteries
The risk of heart attack is greater in males and older adults. Factors that may increase your chance of developing a heart attack include:
- High blood pressure
- Sedentary lifestyle
- High blood cholesterol − specifically, high LDL cholesterol, and low HDL cholesterol
- High blood triglycerides
- Family members with heart disease
- Using testosterone therapy medication
- Squeezing, heavy chest pain behind breastbone, especially with:
- Exercise or exertion
- Emotional stress
- Cold weather
- A large meal
- Usually comes on quickly
- Pain in the left shoulder, left arm, or jaw
- Shortness of breath
- Sweating, clammy skin
- Loss of consciousness
- Anxiety, especially feeling a sense of doom or panic without apparent reason
- Unusual symptoms of heart attack – may occur more frequently in women: stomach pain, back and shoulder pain, confusion, fainting
If you think you are having a heart attack, call for emergency medical services right away.
Diagnosis & Treatment
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:
- Blood tests – to look for certain enzymes found in the blood within hours or days after a heart attack
- Urine tests – to look for certain substances found in the urine within hours or days after a heart attack
Your heart function may be tested. This can be done with:
- Electrocardiogram (EKG) – to look for evidence of blockage or damage
- Echocardiogram – to examine the size, shape, function, and motion of the heart
- Stress test – records the heart's electrical activity under increased physical stress, usually done days or weeks after the heart attack
Images may be taken. This can be done with:
- Nuclear scanning – show areas of the heart muscle where there is diminished blood flow
- Electron-beam computed tomography (EBCT) – to make detailed pictures of the heart, coronary arteries and surrounding structures
- Coronary angiography – to look for narrowing or blockage in the coronary arteries
Medical Drug Therapy. Medications may include:
- Pain-relieving medication
- Nitrate medications
- Other antiplatelet agents
- Beta-blockers and/or angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor medications
- Anti-anxiety medication
- Cholesterol-lowering medications such as statin drugs
Within the first six hours after a heart attack, you may be given medications to break up blood clots in the coronary arteries.
Angioplasty and stenting performed during the heart attack to open a blockage and restore blood flow.
If you have severe blockages you may need surgery right away or after recovery.
Physical or Rehabilitative Therapy
During recovery, you may need physical or rehabilitative therapy to help you regain your strength.
Preventing or treating coronary artery disease may help prevent a heart attack. Maintain a healthy weight. Begin a safe exercise program. Follow your doctor's advice. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to quit. Eat a healthy diet. Your diet should be low in saturated fat and rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Properly treat long-term conditions, like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. Manage stress.
Ask your doctor about taking a small, daily dose of aspirin. Although most people are able to tolerate such a low dose of aspirin, even this small amount can rarely lead to serious bleeding, particularly from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Aspirin may not work as well when combined with other pain medications.