Heart attacks (called myocardial infarctions) are very common in the
United States. During a heart attack, the blood supply that normally nourishes
the heart with oxygen is cut off and the heart muscle begins to die.
Some people who are having a heart attack have symptoms, while others
show no signs. Many people report chest pain, upper body pain, sweating,
nausea, fatigue, and trouble breathing.
A heart attack is a serious medical emergency. Seek immediate medical
attention if you or someone you know
is experiencing symptoms that could signal a heart attack.
There are a few cardiac conditions that can cause heart attacks. One
of the most common causes is plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis) that
prevents blood from getting to the heart muscle. Heart attacks can also be
caused by blood clots or a torn blood vessel. Less commonly, a heart attack is
caused by a blood vessel spasm.
There are factors that can put you at risk for a heart attack. Some
factors you can’t change, such as age and family history. Other factors, called
modifiable risk factors, are ones you can change. The risk factors that you
can’t change include:
If you are over 65, your risk for having a heart attack is greater.
Men are more at risk than women.
history: If you have a family history of heart disease, high blood
pressure, obesity, or diabetes, you are more at risk.
- Race: People
of African descent are at higher risk.
Modifiable risk factors include:
and alcohol consumption
Symptoms and diagnosis
A diagnosis of heart attack is made by a doctor after they perform a
physical exam and review your medical history. Your doctor will likely conduct
an electrocardiogram (ECG) to monitor your heart’s electrical activity.
They should also take a sample of your blood or perform other tests to
see if there’s evidence of heart muscle damage.
Tests and treatments
If your doctor diagnoses a heart attack, they will use a variety of
tests and treatments, depending on the cause.
Your doctor may order a cardiac catheterization. This is a probe
that’s inserted into your blood vessels through a soft flexible tube called a
catheter. It allows your doctor to view areas where plaque may have built up.
Your doctor can also inject dye into your arteries through the catheter and
take an X-ray to see how the blood flows as well as view any blockages.
If you have had a heart attack, your doctor may recommend a procedure (surgery
or nonsurgical). Procedures can relieve pain and help prevent another heart
attack from occurring.
Common procedures include:
opens the blocked artery by using a balloon or by removing the plaque
of stent: this is a wire mesh tube that is used to keep the artery open after
surgery: reroutes the blood around the blockage
valve surgery: replaces leaky valves to help the heart pump
insertion of a device to help your heart maintain a normal rhythm
transplant: this is done in severe cases where the heart attack has caused
permanent tissue death to most of the heart
Your doctor may also prescribe medications to treat your heart attack,
and/or other antiplatelet drugs
to break up clots
(also known as blood thinners)
Doctors who treat heart attacks
Since heart attacks are often unexpected, an emergency room doctor is
usually the first to treat them. After the person is stable, they are
transferred to a doctor that specializes in the heart (called a cardiologist).
Several complications can happen. When a heart attack occurs, it can
disrupt your heart’s normal rhythm, potentially stopping it altogether. These
abnormal rhythms are known as arrhythmias. When your heart stops getting a
supply of blood during the heart attack, some of the tissue can die. This can
weaken the heart and later cause life-threatening conditions such as heart
rupture or heart failure. Heart attacks can also affect your heart valves and
cause leaks. The amount of time it takes to receive treatment and the area of
damage will determine the long-term
effects on your heart.
While there are many risk factors that are out of your control, there
are some basic steps you can take to keep your heart healthy. Smoking is a
major cause of heart disease. Starting a smoking cessation program can reduce
your risk. Maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, and limiting alcohol intake
are other important ways to reduce your risk. If you have diabetes, be sure to
take your medication and check your blood glucose. If you have a heart
condition, work closely with your doctor and take your medication. Talk to your
doctor if you have any concerns about your risk of a heart attack.