Heart Attack

Heart Attack: Putting It All Together

Here is a summary of the important facts and information related to heart attack.

  • A heart attack or myocardial infarction happens when heart muscle cells die because they do not receive enough oxygen-rich blood.
  • Most heart attacks are caused by a formation of a blood clot (thrombus) that completely blocks a coronary artery that supplies blood to a region of heart muscle.
  • A coronary thrombus usually forms at a site of a plaque, which are deposits of fatty substances such as cholesterol inside an artery. These clots can result when the plaque ruptures.
  • Warning signs of a heart attack include crushing or burning chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, sweatiness, nausea, and weakness. The chest pain may spread to other locations including the arms, shoulders, neck, back, and jaw.
  • Chest pain experienced with a heart attack is similar to angina, except that is usually more severe, lasts longer, and is not relieved by rest or nitroglycerin.
  • Symptoms of a heart attack can be confused with symptoms of other conditions including other heart, lung, gastrointestinal (stomach and intestinal), and musculoskeletal (muscle and bone) disorders.
  • Familiarize yourself with warning signs of a heart attack and be prepared to seek immediate medical attention (for yourself or others) if one should occur. Early treatment reduces heart damage and saves lives!
  • Major goals of prehospital and hospital care include relief of chest pain and anxiety; limiting the size of the heart attack and reducing the area of heart muscle that dies; reducing the work of the heart; and preventing and treating complications of a heart attack.
  • Possible complications of a heart attack include abnormal heart rhythms; repeat angina and/or heart attack; inadequate heart pumping (heart failure); blood clot formation; mechanical complications such as a tearing of a heart wall or valve; and inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart called pericarditis.
  • Treatment for heart attack includes medications; angioplasty (unblocking/repair of blood vessel); coronary artery bypass surgery [surgical formation of arterial pathways that ‘bypass’ (go around) the blocked portion of artery]; and lifestyle changes.
  • The first two hours after the onset of symptoms of a heart attack are a critical time for beginning treatment. The use of thrombolytic or clot-buster drugs can re-open an artery blocked by a blood clot. This significantly reducing heart muscle damage and improving outcomes. The prevention and early treatment of dangerous abnormal heart rhythms also saves lives.
  • Most people survive a heart attack and return to work and activities, depending on the severity of the heart attack. Some changes in lifestyle are needed after a heart attack to reduce the risk of future heart problems.
  • Recommended lifestyle changes include exercise as recommended by a doctor, eating healthy foods to lower dietary intake of cholesterol and saturated fats, losing weight, if necessary, smoking cessation (if a smoker), and reducing or better managing stress.
  • These lifestyle changes are addressed in cardiac rehabilitation programs that help individuals regain strength, learn about lifestyle changes, and return to activities after a heart attack.

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