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Heart Attack: Medical Information on Causes, Diagnosis, Symptoms and Treatment

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Important Answers about Heart Attacks

  • Heart Attack Overview
  • Heart Disease in Women
  • Common Symptoms
  • Varying Symptoms
  • Common Heart Attack Causes
  • Heart Attack Treatments
  • Immediate Treatment
  • Clot-Busting Drugs
  • Percutaneous Coronary Intervention
  • Medicines
  • Cardiac Rehabilitation

Heart Attack

Heart Attack Overview

Heart attacks occur when the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen either completely or partially due to a blockage of blood flow bringing oxygen to the organ. The attack occurs because coronary arteries supplying blood flow to the heart muscle become narrow over time due to atherosclerosis, a buildup of cholesterol, fat or other substances that produce plaque on the artery walls. Over time, the plaque inside the heart artery can break and form a blood clot around the plaque that eventually blocks the flow of blood to the heart muscle.

Ischemia occurs whenever the heart muscle is starved of nutrients and oxygen, causing damage or death to portions of the heart muscle, leading to myocardial infarction (heart attack). These attacks occur at a rate of 1 every 40 seconds in the United States and occur without warning. This is because there are no symptoms associated with atherosclerosis.

Statistics maintained by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reveals that more than 600,000 individuals in the U.S. die of heart disease, including heart attacks, every year. Heart attacks are the leading cause of death (one out of every four) for both men and women. However, not every attack results in death. Each year, approximately 735,000 individuals in the United States experience a heart attack. Of those, 210,000 cases occurred in individuals who have had a heart attack before.

Heart Disease in Women

Even though more than half of all deaths caused by heart disease in 2009 occurred in men, heart attacks and heart disease are still serious problems in women. In fact, heart disease continues to remain the number one killer of females and is still more deadly than all combined cancer deaths. Every year, one out of every three women in the United States die of heart disease. Unfortunately, many of the signs and symptoms of heart disease are different in women compared to those experienced by men, and many of the indicators are misunderstood.

Common Symptoms

There are common signs and symptoms of heart attack in both men and women. These include:

  • Pain, tightness, and pressure in the arms or chest that might spread to the back, jaw or neck
  • Heartburn, abdominal pain, indigestion and nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Cold sweat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

Varying Symptoms

Not every individual having a heart attack will exhibit the same symptoms or experience the symptoms with the same severity. Many individuals having a heart attack will experience mild discomfort while others experience crippling pain. That said, the more symptoms and signs experienced by the individual, the higher probability that they are having a heart attack.

Heart attacks can involve sudden cardiac arrest where the heart stops suddenly due to an electrical disturbance. The cardiac arrest can be the result of a severe heart attack but there will be other associated causes coinciding with the attack.

While many individuals experience a heart attack that strikes suddenly, others notice many of the warning symptoms and signs hours or weeks in advance. One of the earliest warning signs involves recurring angina (chest pain) that is often triggered by exertion and only subsides when the body is at rest. Angina is usually temporary and the result of a declining flow of blood to the heart.

Common Heart Attack Causes

Heart attacks can occur from factors other than a blockage of blood flow to the heart. Known heart attack causes include:

  • Blockage of Blood Flow – Any blockage of a coronary artery can produce a heart attack. Typically, the buildup of cholesterol (atherosclerosis) plaque can cause a narrowing of the interior lining of the coronary artery that eventually leads to a heart attack. This is because the plaque buildup can rupture and release cholesterol into the bloodstream causing a clot to form at the rupture site. If the clot is large, it can block blood flow to the heart through the coronary artery.
  • Coronary Artery Spasms – can also cause heart attacks by shutting down the flow of blood to one or more parts of the heart muscle. Illegal drugs like cocaine and tobacco use are known to produce life-threatening coronary artery spasms.
  • Heart Artery Tear– Heart attacks are also caused by spontaneous coronary artery dissections where a tear occurs in the heart artery.

Heart Attack Treatments

Receiving treatment immediately after a heart attack can limit or prevent any damage to the muscle. However, this means acting fast to receive emergent care by calling 911. If medical personnel can arrive quickly they can begin their diagnosis and start treatment before the patient arrives at the hospital. The most common forms of treatment include:

  • Immediate Treatment – Treatment can begin even before a diagnosis is verified. The doctor or medical personnel might treat the individual suffering from a heart attack with:
  1. Nitroglycerin can minimize the heart’s workload while improving the flow of blood through the body’s coronary arteries.
  2. Oxygen Therapy provides supplemental oxygen using a face mask or tubes resting on the nose or placed into the windpipe (trachea).
  3. Aspirin is known to prevent further formations of clotting blood
  4. Effective treatments for chest pain
  • Clot-Busting Drugs – clot-busters or thrombolytic medicines are highly effective at dissolving blood clots in coronary arteries. However, they need to be given as quickly as possible.
  • Percutaneous Coronary Intervention – This non-surgical procedure opens narrowed or blocked coronary arteries using a catheter (a thin flexible tube) threaded through blood vessels in the groin to restore the flow of blood to the artery.
  • Medicines – Many individuals suffering a heart attack take one or more effective medicines including:
  1. ACE Inhibitors, which have proven to be highly effective at reducing heart strain and lowering blood pressure.
  2. Anti-Clotting Drugs, which are known to stop the clumping of platelets that produce blood clots. These medicines include clopidogrel and aspirin.
  3. Anti-Coagulants (Blood Thinners), which are known to prevent the formation of blood clots and prevent existing blood clots from growing larger.
  4. Beta-Blockers, which are known to diminish the heart’s workload while relieving discomfort and chest pain to assist in preventing recurrent heart attacks and irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias).
  5. Statin Drugs, which are known to lower and control blood cholesterol which decreases the potential of recurrent heart attacks or strokes.
  • Medical Procedures – The surgeon may perform coronary artery bypass grafting by removing a healthy vein or artery from another body area and bypassing the blocked coronary artery section.
  • Lifestyle Changes – Making significant changes in lifestyle choices can minimize the potential of recurrent heart attacks. This includes eating heart-healthy, managing stress, smoking cessation (quit smoking), physical activity in obtaining the ideal healthy body weight.
  • Cardiac Rehabilitation – Rehab can provide an ideal way to recover from the damaging effects of a heart attack and help prevent recurrent attacks. The rehab team usually involves doctors, nurses, occupational therapist, physical therapist, exercise specialist, nutritionists, dietitians, and psychologists.

Typically, cardiac rehabilitation involves education, training, and counseling along with exercise to improve stamina and strengthen muscles. Usually, medically supervised rehabilitation is recommended to improve the patient’s overall well-being and minimize the potential for future attacks.

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