Health Topics > Learn about Heart Attack

Learn about Heart Attack

Learn about Heart Attack Causes

Most heart attacks are caused by a blood clot that blocks one of the coronary arteries. The coronary arteries bring blood and oxygen to the heart. If the blood flow is blocked, the heart starves for oxygen and heart cells die.

A clot most often forms in a coronary artery that has become narrow because of the build-up of a substance called plaque along the artery walls. (See: atherosclerosis) Sometimes, the plaque cracks and triggers a blood clot to form.

Occasionally, sudden overwhelming stress can trigger a heart attack.

Risk factors for heart attack and coronary artery disease include:

  • Being a middle-aged male
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of coronary artery disease (genetic or hereditary factors)
  • High blood pressure
  • Increasing age (over age 65)
  • Smoking
  • Too much fat in your diet
  • Unhealthy cholesterol levels, especially high LDL ("bad") cholesterol and low HDL ("good") cholesterol

Symptoms

Chest pain is a major symptom of heart attack. You may feel the pain in only one part of your body, or it may move from your chest to your arms, shoulder, neck, teeth, jaw, belly area, or back.

The pain can be severe or mild. It can feel like:
  • A tight band around the chest
  • Bad indigestion
  • Something heavy sitting on your chest
  • Squeezing or heavy pressure

The pain usually lasts longer than 20 minutes. Rest and a medicine called nitroglycerin do not completely relieve the pain of a heart attack.

Other symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Anxiety
  • Cough
  • Fainting
  • Light-headedness, dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Palpitations (feeling like your heart is beating too fast)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating, which may be extreme

Some people (the elderly, people with diabetes, and women) may have little or no chest pain. Or, they may experience unusual symptoms (shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness). A "silent heart attack" is a heart attack with no symptoms.


Exams and Tests

A heart attack is a medical emergency. If you have symptoms of a heart attack, seek immediate medical help. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. DO NOT try to drive yourself to the hospital.

The health care provider will perform a physical exam and listen to your chest using a stethoscope. The doctor may hear abnormal sounds in your lungs (called crackles), a heart murmur, or other abnormal sounds.

You may have a rapid pulse. Your blood pressure may be normal, high, or low.

Tests to look at your heart include:

  • Coronary angiography
  • CT scan
  • Echocardiography
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) -- once or repeated over several hours
  • MRI
  • Nuclear ventriculography

Blood tests can help show if you have substances produced by heart tissue damage or a high risk for heart attack. These tests include:

  • Troponin I and troponin T
  • CPK and CPK-MB
  • Serum myoglobin

Treatment

If you had a heart attack, you will need to stay in the hospital, possibly in the intensive care unit (ICU). You will be hooked up to an ECG machine, so the health care team can look at how your heart is beating.

Life-threatening arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) are the leading cause of death in the first few hours of a heart attack. These arrythmias may be treated with medications or electrical cardioverson/defibrillation.

The health care team will give you oxygen, even if your blood oxygen levels are normal. This is done so that your body tissues have easy access to oxygen, so your heart doesn't have to work as hard.

An intravenous line (IV) will be placed into one of your veins. Medicines and fluids pass through this IV. You may need a tube inserted into your bladder (urinary catheter) so that doctors can see how much fluid your body removes.

THROMBOLYTIC THERAPY

Depending on the results of the ECG, certain patients may be given blood thinners within 12 hours of when they first felt the chest pain. This is called thrombolytic therapy. The medicine is first given through an IV. Blood thinners taken by mouth may be prescribed later to prevent clots from forming.

Thrombolytic therapy is not appropriate for people who have:

  • Bleeding inside their head (intracranial hemorrhage)
  • Brain abnormalities such as tumors or blood vessel malformations
  • Stroke within the past 3 months (or possibly longer)
  • Head injury within the past 3 months

Thrombolytic therapy is extremely dangerous in women who are pregnant or people who have:
  • A history of using blood thinners such as coumadin
  • Had major surgery or a major injury within the past 3 weeks
  • Had internal bleeding within the past 2-4 weeks
  • Peptic ulcer disease
  • Severe high blood pressure

OTHER MEDICINES FOR HEART ATTACKS

Many different medicines are used to treat and prevent heart attacks. Nitroglycerin helps reduce chest pain. You may also receive strong medicines to relieve pain.

Antiplatelet medicines help prevent clot formation. Aspirin is an antiplatelet drug. Another one is clopidogrel (Plavix).

Beta-blockers (such as metoprolol, atenolol, and propranolol) help reduce the strain on the heart and lower blood pressure.

ACE inhibitors (such as ramipril, lisinopril, enalapril, or captopril) are used to prevent heart failure and lower blood pressure.

Lipid-lowering medications, especially statins (such as lovastatin, pravastatin, simvastatin, atorvastatin, and rosuvastatin) reduce blood cholesterol levels to prevent plaque from increasing. They may reduce the risk of another heart attack or death.

SURGERY AND OTHER PROCEDURES

A procedure called angioplasty may be needed to open blocked coronary arteries. This procedure may be used instead of thrombolytic therapy.

Angioplasty with stenting can be a life-saving procedure if you are having a heart attack. However, for people with coronary heart disease, recent studies show that medicine and angioplasty with stenting have equal benefits. Angioplasty with stenting does not help you live longer, but it can reduce angina or other symptoms of coronary artery disease.

Some people may need emergency coronary artery bypass surgery (CABG). This procedure is also called "open heart surgery." The surgeon takes either a vein or artery from another location in your body and uses it to bypass the blocked coronary artery.
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