Heart Attack

Medically reviewed by Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI on September 29, 2016Written by Tricia Kinman

Overview

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 warning signs, 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.

Causes

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.

Symptoms

Symptoms for a heart attack may include:

There are many more symptoms that can occur during a heart attack, and symptoms can differ between men and women.

Risk factors

A number of factors 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:

  • Age: If you are over 65, your risk for having a heart attack is greater.
  • Sex: 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: People of African descent are at higher risk.

Modifiable risk factors include:

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’ve 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:

  • angioplasty: opens the blocked artery by using a balloon or by removing the plaque buildup
  • stent: a wire mesh tube is inserted into the artery to keep it open after
  • bypass surgery: reroutes the blood around the blockage
  • heart valve surgery: replaces leaky valves to help the heart pump
  • pacemaker: a device designed to help your heart maintain a normal rhythm is implanted beneath the skin
  • heart transplant: performed 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, including:

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).

Alternative treatments

Alternative treatments and lifestyle changes can improve your heart health and reduce your risk of a heart attack. A healthy diet and lifestyle are essential in maintaining a healthy heart.

Complications

Several complications are associated with heart attacks. 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 the long-term effects on your heart.

Prevention

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.

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