Heart attacks (myocardial infarctions) are a very common
occurrence 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
Some people who experience heart attacks have symptoms,
while others show no signs. Many people who have a heart attack report they
have chest pain, fatigue, and trouble breathing.
A heart attack is a serious medical emergency. Seek
immediate medical attention if you or someone you know are experiencing
symptoms that could signal a heart attack.
Causes of Heart Attack
There are a few cardiac conditions that can cause heart
attacks. One of the most common causes is when plaque builds up in arteries
(arthrosclerosis) and prevents blood from getting to the heart. Heart attacks
can also be caused by blood clots or a torn blood vessel. Less commonly, a
heart attack can be caused by a blood vessel spasm.
Heart Attack Risk Factors
There are factors that can put you at risk for having a
heart attack. Some factors you can’t change, such as age and family history.
Other factors, called modifiable risk factors, you can change to decrease your
odds of having heart attacks. The risk factors for heart attacks are that you
can’t change include:
- age: If you are over age 65, your risk for
having a heart attack is greater.
- gender: Men are more at risk than women.
- family history: If you have a family history of heart
disease, high blood pressure, obesity, or diabetes you are more at risk.
- race: African-Americans are more at risk for
having a heart attack.
Modifiable risk factors include:
- having high cholesterol
- lack of exercise
- diet and alcohol consumption
Heart Attack Symptoms and Diagnosis
A diagnosis of a heart attack is made by a doctor after
performing a physical exam and reviewing your medical history. Your doctor will
likely give you and electrocardiogram (ECG) to monitor your heart’s electrical
activity and see if you are experiencing a heart attack. Your doctor should
also take a sample of your blood or perform other tests to see if you have evidence
of definite heart muscle damage.
Heart Attack Tests and Treatments
If your doctor diagnoses a heart attack, there are
several tests and treatments that may be performed depending on the cause of
your heart attack. Your doctor may order a cardiac catheterization. This is a
probe that’s inserted into your blood vessels so your doctor can view areas
where plaque may be 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 and view areas of blockage.
If you have had a heart attack, your doctor may order either
a nonsurgical procedure or actual surgery to help relieve the pain and prevent
another heart attack. Some procedures are:
- angioplasty: opens the blocked artery by using a
balloon or by removing the plaque build up
- bypass surgery: rerouting the blood around the
- heart valve surgery: replacing leaky valves to
help the heart pump
- pacemaker: inserting a device to help your heart
maintain a normal rhythm
- heart transplant: in severe cases where the
heart attack has caused permanent tissue death to most of the heart
Your doctor may also prescribe medications to help treat
your heart attack including:
- aspirin and/or other anti-platelet drugs
- drugs to break up clots
- anticoagulants (also known as blood thinners)
- blood pressure medication
Doctors Who Treat Heart Attacks
Since heart attacks are often unexpected, an emergency room
doctor is usually the first to treat heart attacks. After the person is stable
they are usually transferred to a doctor that specializes in heart problems
Heart Attack Complications
Several complications can happen because of a heart attack.
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.
Heart Attack Prevention
While there are many risk factors that are out of your
control, there are some basic prevention activities you can perform to keep
your heart healthy. Smoking is a major cause of heart disease. Starting a
smoking cessation program can reduce your risk of heart disease. Maintaining a
healthy diet, exercising, and limiting alcohol intake are key measures for reducing
your risk. If you have diabetes, be sure to take your medication and check your
blood glucose. If you have a heart condition, be sure to 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.