Heart Attack

What is a heart attack?

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A heart attack is a cardiac event in which blood is cut off from the heart muscle. Also called a myocardial infarction, a heart attack is typically accompanied by well-known warning signs, yet some do not experience symptoms. Heart attacks are very common in the United States. One source estimates that a heart attack occurs every 40 seconds.

A heart attack is a serious medical emergency. If you think you may be experiencing a heart attack, call 911 and arrange transportation to the nearest emergency center. Those who survive heart attacks typically have lasting heart damage that should be managed with the help of a cardiologist. Similarly, folks who are at risk of having a heart attack can work with a cardiologist or other physician to reduce their likelihood.

What are common heart attack causes?

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Heart attacks can have several causes. The most direct cause is the stoppage of oxygen-rich blood to a section of the heart. Many things can cause this stoppage, but the most common is coronary artery disease. Those with this condition experience a gradual building up of plaque, a waxy substance inside the coronary arteries. When plaque builds up, the area can rupture, causing a blood clot to form. When the clot becomes large enough, it can partially or completely block the flow of blood. This causes the heart attack.

However, some people can experience blood clots that are not caused by coronary artery disease. Torn blood vessels can contribute to heart attacks, as can blood vessel spasms. While less common, these risks should be taken seriously.

What are heart attack symptoms?

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Heart attack symptoms vary by person. Some symptoms are very recognizable. They include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Light-headedness
  • Arm pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the jaw, neck, and/or back

However, these symptoms coincide with those of a panic attack, an extremely common neurological experience. Still, if you are experiencing any of these heart attack symptoms, call your doctor or an emergency operator immediately. Even if you are not having a heart attack, it is better to be safe.

Additionally, heart attack symptoms present differently in male and female bodies. Males are more likely to experience chest pain and shortness of breath. Females are more likely to experience jaw pain and extreme fatigue.

There are also several risk factors that can increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing a heart attack. Those who are over 65 years old and have a family history of heart disease are more likely to have a heart attack. Additionally, those who smoke, have high cholesterol, are obese, experience extreme stress, and drink alcohol excessively are more likely to have a heart attack.

What are some types of heart attack?

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There are three primary types of heart attacks. The names are derived from the various myocardial infarction causes.

  • ST segment elevation myocardial infarction: This is the most common type of heart attack. Also known as a STEMI, this cardiac event occurs when a coronary artery becomes completely blocked. This causes a large portion of the muscle to stop receiving blood. This type of heart attack can cause death or serious lasting damage.
  • Non-ST segment elevation myocardial infarction: This type of heart attack occurs when the affected artery is only partially blocked. Those who experience a NSTEMI heart attack will experience less heart damage, but the event is still very dangerous. If you experience this type of heart attack, your cardiologist will likely complete a coronary angiography to understand the degree to which the artery is blocked.
  • Coronary spasm: Also known as unstable angina or a “silent heart attack,” this type of heart attack occurs without blockage. It happens when an artery tightens so much that it stops or reduces blood flow. This type of heart attack is often mistaken for indigestion or muscle pain, and it does not cause permanent damage. However, only blood test results and imaging can reveal whether you have had a silent heart attack.

While each type of heart attack comes with a different risk of death and significant injury, they should all be taken seriously. Any cardiac event risks death and complications. If you are at risk of having a heart attack, start seeing a cardiologist as soon as possible.

How is a heart attack diagnosed?

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Heart attacks are diagnosed using a range of tests and imaging procedures. In most cases, the diagnosis will happen after the heart attack has occurred. If you go to an emergency room because of a heart attack, the staff will triage you as a patient and work to address symptoms. Once you and your heart have been stabilized, they will begin the process of diagnosing the myocardial infarction.

The first test used will be an electrocardiogram, also known as an ECG. This is used to monitor the heart’s electrical activity. This test will confirm the heart attack diagnosis and help determine which type of heart attack you experienced.

Afterwards, your physician may order several tests to assess the state of your heart and check for any related complications. This can include any or all of the following.

  • Blood Tests: When heart damage occurs, certain proteins will leak into the blood stream. A sample of a patient’s blood can tell a doctor the extent of the damage through observing these proteins, also known as cardiac markers.
  • Echocardiogram: This imaging scan uses sound waves to produce a picture of the inside of a person’s heart. This can be used to determine which part of the organ has been affected.
  • Chest XRay: A doctor may order an X-ray if they are uncertain if you have had a heart attack. The image can also check for complications that may have happened during the heart attack, like the build-up of fluid inside of the lungs.
  • Coronary Angiography: This procedure involves inserting a thin tube into a blood vessel, typically in the groin. The tube is threaded into the coronary arteries to help provide an image of the heart, locating any signs of blockage or arterial narrowing. The procedure is used often by cardiologists before determining treatment or prevention options.

Even if you have not had a heart attack, a doctor may use any of these tests to determine your cardiac health. The best way to treat a heart attack is to prevent it from happening. If you are at risk of having a cardiac event, start seeing a cardiologist. They will be able to provide guidance and treatment to keep your heart as healthy as possible.

How are heart attacks treated?

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Tissue begins to deteriorate as soon as a heart attack happens. In an emergency setting, medical professionals will work hard to restore blood flow as quickly as possible.

Many patients will also receive medications to treat heart attacks. This might include any of the following.

  • Aspirin, which reduces blood clotting and helps maintain blood flow through a narrowed artery.
  • Antiplatelet agents, which prevent new clots from forming.
  • Thrombolytics, which help dissolve blood clots.
  • Beta blockers, which can help relax the heart muscle, slow your heartbeat, and decrease blood pressure.
  • Nitroglycerin, which can treat chest pain and widen blood vessels, thus improving blood flow.
  • ACE inhibitors, which reduce blood pressure.
  • Pain relievers, which will make the experience less painful for the patient.

If a heart attack is severe, or if the patient does not respond to treatment, a doctor may perform an emergency surgical procedure. This can include a coronary artery bypass surgery, which allows blood to bypass the narrowed blood vessel. A coronary stenting may also be performed. This includes using a special balloon, which is briefly inflated, to open a blocked artery.

In most cases, heart attack patients will need to go some type of cardiac rehabilitation. You will need to see a cardiologist regularly for several months after returning from the hospital. Remember that those who engage in cardiac rehabilitation are less likely to have additional heart attacks or complications. If you have had a heart attack, or if you are at risk of having one, building a relationship with a cardiologist is crucial.

Are there any strategies for preventing heart attacks?

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When it comes to heart attack prevention, many factors are out of an individual’s control. This includes age, sex, race, and genetic predisposition. However, most people can make lifestyle changes to reduce their likelihood of having a heart attack. Smokers, for example, can join smoking cessation programs, which can reduce their risk. Additionally, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol intake, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight can all contribute to a heart-healthy lifestyle.

If you are worried about having a heart attack, talk to your doctor now. Heart attacks can be both dangerous and scary. However, working to increase your heart health can improve your outlook. Building a relationship with a cardiologist can also provide that physician with a better understanding of your health, how you might respond to treatment, and how to best prevent a cardiac event from occurring. It is important to take your heart health seriously, and finding a doctor is a great first step.