Heart Attack

Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction)

What is it?

A heart attack or myocardial infarction is a medical emergency in which the supply of blood to the heart is suddenly and severely reduced or cut off, causing the muscle to die from lack of oxygen. Many heart attacks are caused by a complete blockage of the coronary artery in your heart. By getting emergency medical treatment, the damage can be reduced, but once a section of the heart muscle dies, the damage cannot be reversed. A heart attack may be the first symptom of coronary artery disease and it may be severe enough to cause death.

If you have one or more Heart Attack warning signs listed below, don't wait...call 9-1-1 immediately!

Causes, Symptoms and Risk Factors

A heart attack (myocardial infarction) is usually caused by a blood clot that blocks the coronary artery of the heart. The artery has often already been narrowed by fatty deposits on its walls called plaque. A blocked artery prevents oxygen-rich blood and nutrients from reaching a section of the heart. Sometimes a clot forms inside the heart itself, then breaks away and gets stuck in an artery that feeds the heart. A spasm in one of these arteries can cause the blood flow to stop.

Not everyone has the same heart attack symptoms when having a myocardial infarction. Some report having mild or no symptoms while other common symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired for a few days or weeks
  • A change in pattern of angina
  • Pain in the middle of the chest
  • Pain that can spread to the back, jaw, arms
  • Sour stomach
  • Longer lasting angina not cured by resting or taking medicine
  • Faintness
  • Sudden sweating
  • Nausea
  • Unexplained shortness of breath
  • Heavy pounding of the heart
  • Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Restlessness and anxiety
  • Bluishness of the lips, hands or feet
  • Stroke-like symptoms and disorientation

Heart attack symptoms in women may be different from those experienced by men. Many women who have a heart attack do not know it. Women tend to feel a burning sensation in their upper abdomen and may experience lightheadedness, an upset stomach, and sweating. Because they may not feel the typical pain in the left half of their chest, many women may ignore symptoms that indicate they are having a heart attack. (More about Women & Heart Disease)

The sooner that treatment of a heart attack begins the better. It is imperative to recognize the symptoms early and seek immediate medical attention within an hour. A person with these symptoms should be taken to the emergency department of a hospital in an ambulance with trained personnel. Chewing an aspirin tablet after an ambulance has been called can help reduce the size of the blood clot. Half the deaths from a heart attack occur in the first 3 or 4 hours after symptoms begin. After six hours, most damage is permanent.

Other medicines such as, beta blockers or clot busters, and oxygen may be given by emergency medical staff to slow the heart rate so the heart is not working as hard and to reduce the damage to the heart muscle and tissue.

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Tests, Procedures and Treatments

Call a doctor right away if you have any unusual chest pain (more severe than typical angina) that lasts 5 minutes or longer. Because a heart attack (myocardial infarction) can be life threatening, a doctor should be seen for unusual chest pain right away as if it is a heart attack, time could save heart muscles.

A heart attack can be confirmed within a few hours of its occurrence. Diagnostic testing and procedures are the first step in establishing a treatment strategy. A doctor may order tests or perform the following procedures:>

  • A chest X-ray
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) at rest
  • Blood tests to measure levels of serum markers. The presence of these markers shows that there has been damage to or death of the heart muscle. These markers are normally found in the heart muscle, but they are released into the blood when the heart muscle is damaged
  • Angioplasty, may be performed immediately to clear the arteries

Once stable, additional tests may be ordered to determine the extent of damage to the heart which includes:

The goals of heart attack treatment are to return blood flow to the heart muscle, bring back a regular heartbeat, and give the heart time to recover. Recovery includes rest and even limited exercise after a few days a heart attack has proven beneficial.