A heart attack occurs once every 40 seconds in the United States and is caused by a blocked artery within the heart. If you are experiencing chest pain, difficulty breathing, or believe that you are having any signs of a heart attack call 911 immediately. Every second counts and obtaining a quick diagnosis will lead to the best treatment. If you have experienced a heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, you won’t have to give up your favorite activities. Many people have had a full recovery and led healthy, productive lives.
What is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack occurs when vessels, called the coronary arteries, have a partial or complete blockage preventing oxygen and nutrients from reaching the heart muscle. Coronary arteries supply the heart muscle with necessary oxygen and nutrients it needs to pump blood effectively to the body. When the heart muscle, also known as the myocardium, does not receive an adequate amount of oxygen the myocardium will become damaged. The damaged heart muscle will not pump effectively and which can lead to long-term effects on the body.
There are many coronary arteries that feed the heart muscle. The severity of the heart attack will depend on which coronary artery is blocked, the extent of the blockage, and the length of time it takes to reinstate blood flow through the coronary artery.
Heart Attack Causes
A heart attack is caused by a lack of blood flow to the heart. The coronary arteries that feed the heart muscle can become blocked for a number of reasons. The most common cause of a blocked coronary artery is when plaque breaks off from the coronary artery and a clot forms around it.
The buildup of plaque is called atherosclerosis and is composed of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. The clot around the plaque will then cause an occlusion resulting in either an obstruction or partial obstruction in the coronary artery.
Other heart attack causes are coronary artery spasm and dissection. During a coronary artery spasm, the artery will become narrow for a short period of time. It is usually caused by illegal drugs such as cocaine.
The last cause of a heart attack is coronary artery dissection. This is when the artery develops a tear. It is very rare and lethal.
Risk Factors for a Heart Attack
It is important to know all the heart attack risk factors. Some of these risk factors are unmodifiable, ones which you cannot change. Luckily though, many of these risk factors are factors you can take into your own hands. Taking control over your health will make many long-term positive changes in your life.
High Blood Pressure
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High blood pressure places more strain on your coronary arteries. Over time this can damage the artery walls. Keep track of your blood pressure with a high quality blood pressure monitor. It’s also helpful to truly have an understanding of blood pressure numbers and how they impact your health.
There are two types of cholesterol, low density lipoprotein (LDL) and high density lipoprotein (HDL). The LDL is the bad type of cholesterol, while the HDL is the good type of cholesterol. If you have high LDL you are at a higher risk of a heart attack, while maintaining a high HDL will reduce your risk.
Smoking cigarettes greatly increases your chance of developing coronary artery disease. It is one of the largest modifiable risk factors for a heart attack. If you smoke or are exposed to smoke, exposure to secondhand smoke also increases your risk.
Illegal Drug Use
Cocaine is known to causes coronary artery spasms. The spasms will stop the flow of blood through the coronary arteries for a period of time. With no blood reaching the heart muscle a massive heart attack can occur.
Diabetes is another large risk factor for heart attacks. Even well-controlled diabetes increases your risk of heart disease. People over the age of 65 with diabetes have a 68% chance of dying from some form of heart disease. It is incredibly important to manage your diabetes appropriately and even more important to prevent it from even developing.
If you carry extra weight, especially around your midsection, you are at a higher risk for a heart attack. Luckily, losing even 3-5% of your body weight can significantly reduce your risks. Obesity is linked to many other risk factors for a heart attack. Talk to your doctor about how you can help manage your weight and decrease the chances of a heart attack.
There are some heart attack risk factors that we cannot change. One of them is our family history. If your parents have had a heart attack or if you are African American your heart attack risk is higher. Having an unmodifiable risk factor makes controlling your modifiable ones even more important.
Being a couch potato has never positively impacted anyone’s life. Especially in regards to their heart health. Physical activity can help combat obesity, lower bad cholesterol, and even improve mood. You don’t need to start out by running a marathon.
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Walking can be a great way to get moving and decrease your chances of heart disease. Monitoring your weight can be easy with a digital scale.
Experts know there is a strong correlation between stress and heart disease. Stress often leads to overeating, smoking, and other unhealthy habits that also contribute to developing a heart attack. Managing your stress will lead to a healthier life.
Age is another unmodifiable risk factor for heart attacks. Adults over the age of 65 are at the greatest risk. It is important, as you age, to learn everything you can about heart attacks. Keep reading to learn all the symptoms and tell-tale signs so you can be prepared if you or a loved one has a heart attack.
Heart Attack Symptoms
Heart attack warning signs are different for everyone, and it is important to know all the signs and seek treatment immediately. Heart attack symptoms can present strong and painful, but most heart attacks start with mild pain, which is what makes identifying the early signs of heart attack difficult.
See some of the most common symptoms below:
- Chest pain or angina
- Jaw, neck, or back pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Indigestion or heartburn sensation
Rarely, people will have a heart attack without any symptoms. This is called a silent heart attack. If you have signs of heart attack, do not ignore them.
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
Many women like to think that a heart attack could never happen to them. But the truth is heart disease is the number one killer of women. Heart attack symptoms in women are similar to those in men, with chest pain being the number one symptom. However, women are more likely to experience other signs and symptoms of heart attack, like difficulty breathing, nausea, and jaw pain.
Heart Attack Diagnosis
Diagnosing a heart attack isn’t always easy, since heart attack symptoms vary slightly from person to person. Your doctor may request multiple tests to make an accurate diagnosis. Below we cover each test for heart attack and describe how it will help your doctor provide you the best treatment possible.
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A stethoscope can be a useful tool when trying to stay connected to the health of your heart. While it takes medical training to understand what you're hearing, you can gain some helpful pointers from your doctor.
An electrocardiogram, or EKG/ECG, is a test that provides a readout of the heart’s electrical activity. It is a quick, painless test done by placing sticky patches, also known as electrodes, on the chest. The electrodes then transmit the heart’s electrical signal to a machine. If there is damage to the heart muscle the electrical activity shown through the EKG will be abnormal.
Echocardiograms are an ultrasound of the heart. During this test, an ultrasound probe is placed on your chest which will create images of your heart. The images will show if there is damage to the heart muscle, indicating a heart attack.
A blood test for heart attack is a helpful additional diagnostic tool for your doctor. During a heart attack, certain heart enzymes will be high indicating damage to the heart muscle. Your doctor will use the information from these blood tests to help guide further treatment.
During a cardiac catheterization, you will be given medication to help you sleep and the doctor with insert a small tube through your groin or arm and thread it towards your heart. He or she will then inject dye, which will show blocked areas in the coronary arteries.
Heart Attack Treatment
Heart attack treatment is focused on opening the blocked coronary arteries and preventing further blockage, optimizing the patient’s current oxygen levels, and providing pain relief. Your doctor will implement many different treatments to provide you with the best chance possible.
Medications are an effective tool in treating a heart attack. There are many classes of medications that do different jobs. Your doctor may administer a medication to dissolve clots, thin blood, or one that will help your heart beat more effectively.
One of the most used antiplatelet drugs is aspirin. If you call 911, they may tell you to take an aspirin even if you are having mild heart attack symptoms. Aspirin will decrease platelet function, which will slow down clot formation in your coronary arteries. Antiplatelet drugs are an important addition in fighting a heart attack.
This class of medication blocks the heart from increasing its heart rate when your adrenaline increases. By decreasing the body’s heart rate and reducing the workload of the heart, it is less stressed and needs less oxygen and nutrients. Beta-blockers also decrease blood pressure and reduce the likelihood of abnormal heart rhythms. Examples of a beta-blockers are metoprolol, carvedilol, and atenolol.
An Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme (ACE) inhibitor prevents blood vessels from narrowing. This results in a lower blood pressure, reduced workload of the heart, and a lower heart rate. ACE inhibitors will help your heart work better after a heart attack by allowing it to work more efficiently with less strain on the heart muscles. The most common ACE inhibitors are captopril, lisinopril, and enalapril.
Anticoagulation medication, also known as blood thinners, prevent further clot formation. They do not break up an existing clot. There are lots of different types of blood thinners your doctor can use. One of the most common ones is Heparin.
Thrombolytics dissolve clots in vessels and are sometimes referred to as clot busters. They are given as soon as possible after a heart attack is diagnosed. There is a risk of bleeding after the administration of a thrombolytic.
Your doctor may recommend more invasive techniques like open heart bypass surgery. During bypass surgery blood is redirected around the blocked coronary artery. Whatever treatment your doctor decides on, he or she will discuss all the benefits and risks.
Heart Attack Complications
Thankfully, many people live a long, full life after a heart attack. Even if you suffer from heart attack complications there are treatments to keep you as healthy as possible. Each scenario is different. Your doctor will tell you the best way to manage your complications to help you live the best life you can lead.
If the heart has irreversible damage to the muscle you may experience heart failure. There are many types of medications that will help decrease the workload of the heart, such as beta-blockers and diuretics, which make it easier for the heart to do its job. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for the heart to pump effectively.
If medication does not work there are machines that can be inserted into the heart to help it pump called ventricular assist devices (VAD). VADs can carry a large risk, but they also can be very effective. Your doctor will discuss the benefits and risks of each treatment for heart failure.
If there is damage to the electrical pathway through the heart you can experience irregular heartbeats, called arrhythmias. These irregular beats can be infrequent and cause minimal issues or they can be major and deadly. Depending on the severity of the arrhythmia you may be prescribed a medication or have a pacemaker inserted.
Medications will slow down the speed of the heart, decreasing the likelihood of an arrhythmia. Pacemakers override the body’s heart rate with an electrical signal. This will keep your heart beating in an organized rhythm, preventing lethal irregular heartbeats.
Preventing a Heart Attack
Learning how to prevent heart attack is critical to your lifelong health. While most people will lead healthy lives after their first heart attack, 20% of people over the age of 45 will experience a second heart attack within five years of their first one. We will discuss medication management and lifestyle changes you can make.
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During your heart attack recovery, your doctor will likely prescribe a few medications for you take regularly. Taking your medication on time and as prescribed is one way to prevent a second heart attack. We recommend purchasing a pill organizer to keep tabs on all your medications.
Incorporating healthy lifestyle changes is a huge step in heart attack prevention. Look at your modifiable risk factors like smoking, drug use, stress, and body weight to work towards a healthier life. We know making these changes can be difficult, that’s why we recommend starting small.
If you have a hard time with exercise we love these simple chair exercises for seniors or the relaxing movements of yoga for seniors to help combat stress levels.
Life after a Heart Attack
It is normal to feel scared or unsure about your life after a heart attack. Take control of the risk factors that you can change, go to all your doctor appointments, and take your medication regularly to prevent another heart attack from happening. A heart attack does not have to change your life forever. Stay informed about your health and treatment options and you will be on the road to recovery in no time.