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Heart Attack: The Basics

  • All
  • Overview
  • Symptoms & Causes
  • Testing & Diagnosis
  • Treatment
  • Coronary Artery Disease
  • Heart Disease

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack takes place when one or more coronary arteries (blood vessels that transport blood into and out of the heart) become blocked. The buildup of various substances that block the arteries, such as cholesterol, trigger most heart attacks. During a heart attack, one of the substance buildups can rip apart, spilling cholesterol and other matter into the bloodstream. A blood clot is formed at the site of the rupture and if large enough, may block blood flow into the coronary artery. When tissues don’t receive blood, they immediately begin to deteriorate, so the top priority is to clear the vessel as quickly as possible to restore blood flow. It is a life-threatening emergency; call 911 immediately if you think you or anyone else is experiencing a heart attack.

What is a massive heart attack?

A massive heart attack is the most severe level of heart attack one can face. Usually, more than one artery is blocked, and tissue damage is severe. The body, and especially the brain, is not receiving the blood it needs to function. In extreme cases, the person may simply drop dead. The causes of massive heart attacks are the same as a “regular” heart attack.

Can a heart attack last for days?

Heart attacks can occur suddenly with little to no warning signs. However, in some cases, people may experience symptoms days or weeks in advance. Chest pains may persist for days after the heart attack, requiring close medical attention and monitoring.

How can a heart attack be prevented?

You may be able to avoid a heart attack by taking medicines and being monitored carefully by a a healthcare provider. If you are taking prescribed medications for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or high blood sugars, follow your doctor’s directions carefully. You can lower your risk of heart attack by altering your lifestyle, such as implementing regular exercise, losing weight, eating healthy foods, avoiding foods with saturated and trans fats, and not smoking. Heart attacks may be averted if you manage your stress levels and blood pressure by avoiding stressful situations whenever possible and checking your blood pressure regularly.

Can you have a heart attack and not know it?

A heart attack does not always occur with clear warning signs or obvious symptoms. This is called a silent heart attack (silent ischemia). A silent heart attack can be just as dangerous or even more life-threatening because, although the process is similar, attempts to seek treatment would most likely not be done. Anyone who believes they have experienced a silent heart attack should be seen by a medical professional as soon as possible.

What does a heart attack feel like?

If you are experiencing a heart attack, you most likely feel discomfort, squeezing, and pain in the chest. You may also feel pain in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw, or abdomen. Shortness of breath is common when having a heart attack, even if you aren’t having any chest pain. You may experience nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, and cold sweat. You may also experience a burning sensation around your chest, arms, jaw and neck. Women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and back or jaw pain than men, who are more likely to experience chest pain.

Are heart attack symptoms different for a woman?

Heart attack signs in women are often similar to those in men, including uncomfortable squeezing and pain in the center of the chest; pain shooting up and down one or both arms, back, neck, jaw and/or stomach; shortness of breath; and cold sweats. However, women are more likely to feel symptoms other than chest pain, such as nausea and jaw pain.

What happens when you have a heart attack?

If experiencing a heart attack, you may feel a dull thud or squeezing of the chest and pain shooting up and down in one or both arms because the blockage of the artery is causing blood flow to back up, and you feel the pressure. Shortness of breath is common when having a heart attack because your lungs aren’t receiving the blood they need. You might also experience lower abdomen discomfort and sharp pains. You may also experience a burning sensation around your chest, arms, jaw and neck, or even nausea and/or vomiting. These symptoms occur because many of the nerve pathways that serve the heart also serve the abdominal region. During a heart attack, muscles don’t receive the oxygenated blood they need, so they begin to send out pain signals.

How long does a heart attack or its symptoms last?

The symptoms during a heart attack may last up to 15 minutes, but often last longer. The time range for heart attacks is unique to every individual. Chest pains may last for days and require close monitoring by medical professionals. Even if you think the heart attack is over, make sure the person experiencing it gets immediate medical attention.

What causes a heart attack?

Heart attacks can be caused by coronary heart disease (the clogging of coronary arteries with calcified plaques). These plaques cause the artery walls to solidify and contract, preventing adequate blood flow which is needed to maintain the normal function of the body. Other risk factors that can contribute to a heart attack include high blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity, smoking, diabetes, and stress.

Can stress cause a heart attack?

Stress is a risk factor for heart disease. Chronic stress exposes your body to heightened levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Stress has been linked to alterations in the formation of blood clots, which may increase the risk of heart attacks.

What should I do if someone is having a heart attack?

If you are on hand when someone having a heart attack, call your local medical emergency number (911 in the US) immediately. If the victim is not allergic to aspirin, have them chew and swallow an aspirin, if it is readily available. If the victim is awake and breathing, have them drink a glass of water with a teaspoon of cayenne pepper in it. If he or she is not breathing or the heart has stopped beating (you don’t feel a pulse), perform CPR if you know how. If an automated external defibrillator (AED) is available, follow the instructions while performing CPR on the victim. If you are unable to help in any other way, hold the person’s left pinkie finger with your entire left hand and put the finger pads of your right hand in between their shoulder blades along their spine. Hold them in this way until help arrives.

What should I do if I think I’m going to have a heart attack?

If you think you are going to have a heart attack in the immediate future because you are starting to experience symptoms, call your emergency medical number immediately (911 in the US). Chew and swallow one tablet of adult aspirin, if it is available. This will allow the aspirin to enter your bloodstream quickly and may help delay heart attack damage until you can get help. Some herbal treatments can be attempted to delay a heart attack when one is experiencing symptoms. For example, cayenne pepper may help delay a heart attack. If someone is  experiencing early symptoms, have them drink a glass of water with a teaspoon of cayenne pepper in it. If you are unable to help in any other way, hold the person’s left pinkie finger in your entire left hand and put the finger pads of your right hand in between their shoulder blades along their spine. Hold them in this way until help arrives. If you are alone, hold your entire left pinkie finger in your right hand until help arrives. To avoid heart attacks, it is best to consult your doctor about your risk of heart disease and heart attacks and follow his or her advice. The best thing you can do is prevent heart attacks is to alter your lifestyle and diet, by exercising, avoiding stress, and eating healthy foods.

How is a heart attack treated?

When emergency professionals arrive on the scene of a heart attack, they assess the patient and usually hook the patient up to a machine to get an ECG reading (a reading that shows what the heart is doing). They notify the hospital of the patient’s condition and that they are on their way so the hospital can be ready to treat the patient immediately. Emergency personnel may give oxygen, aspirin, nitroglycerin, morphine, heparin, or other drugs based on the patient’s condition. They manage the patient’s blood pressure and insert IVs so that when the patient arrives at the hospital, they can be immediately treated. The top priority is to clear the artery as soon as possible so blood can begin to flow again.

At the hospital, patients usually go directly to the “cath lab,” where a cardiologist goes into the heart through a vein in the arm or leg with a catheter to find the blockage. This usually involves inserting a small “balloon” which is blown up in the artery to clear the blockage. Then a stent (something that keeps the artery open) is placed to keep the blood flow going. If multiple blockages are found or the stent doesn’t work, open heart or “bypass” surgery may be necessary.

What happens after a heart attack?

After someone is treated for a heart attack and blood flow has been restored, patients usually take medications to keep their blood flow clear. Diet and other lifestyle changes can also help to minimize future heart attack risk. Your blood sugar and blood pressure should be checked periodically, which can help in identifying the risk of you having any subsequent heart attacks.

What is coronary artery disease (CAD)?

Coronary artery disease is a type of heart disease. Specifically, it refers to the narrowing of the coronary arteries (the blood vessels within the heart). It is usually caused by atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which is a buildup of plaques (deposits of cholesterol or fats) on the inner walls of the arteries.

What are the causes of coronary artery disease (CAD)?

CAD can be caused by smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or a sedentary lifestyle. These factors can cause plaque buildup in the blood vessels over time. It can lead to dangerous complications, but it can be helped if changes in lifestyles are made.

What are coronary arteries?

Coronary arteries are the arteries that bring blood to the heart. There are two main coronary arteries, one that comes off the left side of the aorta and one that comes off the right side of the aorta. The left main coronary artery branches into the circumflex artery and the left anterior descending artery (sometimes called “the widowmaker” because blockage of this artery is common in men and can lead to instant death). The right coronary artery branches into the right marginal artery and the posterior descending artery.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is a serious and chronic condition that involves any disorders that affect the heart. Heart disease can be acquired or inherited. “Acquired” means that you develop it throughout your life, while “inherited” means you were born with certain heart defects. Heart disease is treatable but not necessarily curable.

What is cardiovascular disease?

Cardiovascular disease refers to any kind of disease that involves the heart or the blood vessels. Angina, CAD, and stroke are common cardiovascular diseases. Prevention of cardiovascular disease may be possible through appropriate lifestyle changes.

What causes heart disease?

Heart disease is caused by numerous factors, such as lifestyle choices or inherited conditions, that contribute to heart damage. CAD, high blood pressure and diabetes are just a few that impact overall heart health. It is very important to have regular screenings and take preventive steps to minimize your risk of heart disease.

How can I prevent heart disease?

Preventing heart disease requires healthy lifestyle changes. It also demands consistency and persistence. Daily exercise and a healthy, balanced diet are required. Stress management is also important.

Is heart disease curable?

Heart disease is not curable, but it is treatable. Heart disease is a chronic condition that develops over time and will slowly progress further without lifestyle changes. It is important to treat heart disease and make lifestyle changes as soon as it is detected for a better and longer life.

Do women suffer from heart disease?

Heart disease is a common ailment for both women and men. In the US alone, heart disease can kill 1 in 4 women. Lifestyle choices have a great impact on heart disease risk. In general, women have a lower risk of heart disease than men–until they reach menopause. Then their risk of heart disease becomes closer to that of men.

How is heart disease diagnosed?

Heart disease can be detected with various tests, physical examinations and review of family histories. Stress testing, an electrocardiogram, an echocardiography, chest x-rays and even blood tests are some of the exams that can give an in-depth look into your particular heart problems.

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