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What Is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI), means that some heart muscles were injured or died because they didn’t get enough oxygen. An MI occurs when arteries carrying blood to heart muscles (coronary arteries) are blocked.

What Causes a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs when a blood clot forms in a coronary artery and stops blood flow to the heart muscle, so the muscle is injured or dies. Smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high levels of cholesterol (a fatty substance), and a family history of heart disease and inflammation of the coronary arteries increase the risk of heart attacks.

What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack?

Chest pain, moderate to severe, is the most common symptom. Pain can also occur in the jaw, back, shoulders, or arms (especially the left arm). Pain is often described as crushing, heavy, or pressurelike. Some people have no pain. Sweating, shortness of breath, fast or irregular heartbeat, nausea, feeling of indigestion, and vomiting are other symptoms. Women and diabetics may have symptoms different from those in men, such as shortness of breath without chest pain.

How Is a Heart Attack Diagnosed?

The health care provider will do an examination, take blood samples, and order electrocardiography (ECG) to see which areas of the heart may have been damaged.

How Is a Heart Attack Treated?

The treatment goal is to save as much heart muscle as possible. The choice of treatment depends on how much time has passed from the start of the heart attack and on the availability of special procedures at the hospital where you are treated. To salvage as much heart muscle as possible, medications to improve circulation and dissolve the clot blocking the artery are given, or a procedure called angioplasty may be done. Other medicine will control pain and blood pressure, and oxygen will help breathing. Other drugs, including aspirin and cholesterollowering drugs (statins), may be suggested.

If angioplasty is done, a catheter (long plastic tube) is placed into a leg artery and passed to the heart to take pictures of coronary arteries. The blocked artery is opened with a small balloon on the tip of a catheter. A small metal wire mesh (stent) put into the blocked coronary artery will help keep the artery from blocking again. Medicine can also stop new blockage.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing a Heart Attack:

  • DO call 911 emergency if you have heart attack symptoms.
  • DO understand that time is critical. The longer the blockage, the more heart damage.
  • DO understand risk factors.
  • DO stop smoking.
  • DO take medicine as prescribed.
  • DO have your cholesterol level checked regularly. Eat low-fat foods.
  • DO try to maintain your ideal body weight.
  • DO regular exercise, such as walking, if your health care provider says it’s OK.
  • DO see your health care provider regularly and call your health care provider about changes in your condition, such as if you had a heart attack and develop shortness of breath when walking, and leg swelling or difficulty breathing when lying down.
  • DON’T forget to see a cardiologist (health care provider specializing in heart diseases) for advice, both during and after a heart attack.
  • DON’T try to treat yourself or delay getting medical care.

Contact the following sources:

  • American Heart Association
    Tel: (800) 242-8721
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
    Tel: (301) 592-8573
  • American College of Cardiology
    Tel: (800) 253-4636

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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