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What is a Heart Attack?

Your heart needs oxygen to survive.  Your heart receives oxygen through the blood that flows through the arteries of your heart.  When one or more arteries in your heart becomes narrowed or blocked, blood can no longer get to all areas of your heart.  When part of the heart is no longer receiving enough oxygen to survive, a heart attack occurs. 

During a heart attack, the part of your heart that is no longer receiving enough oxygen is experiencing damage or death.  If not treated in time, permanent muscle damage will occur.


Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack

Here are signs that can mean you are experiencing a heart attack:
  • Chest Discomfort: most heart attacks involve discomfort that can be located in your chest or in your back between your shoulder blades.  It can feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body: discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of Breath: can occur with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other Signs: breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea/vomiting, lightheadedness.

Is all chest pain a heart attack?

No.  One very common type of chest pain or discomfort is called Angina.  Angina usually comes on with stress or activity and relieved with rest.  The difference between Angina and a Heart Attack is that angina does not permanently damage the heart muscle.  Angina is the hearts early warning to you that a heart attack may occur in the future.


Treatment of a Heart Attack

If you think you might be experiencing a Heart Attack, it is important that you call 911 and get to the hospital as quick as possible.   Once at the hospital your doctor will discuss the options for treating you, these can include medication, special procedures, and lifestyle changes.
  • Medications can be given to help decrease the workload on the heart and allow your heart to heal. 
  • Angioplasty is performed in the cath lab and uses a balloon on the end of a catheter to open your artery.  Many times a stent is also placed to help keep the artery open . 
  • Sometimes surgery is required to reestablish the flow of blood to an area of the heart.  This is call Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting or CABG
  • Lifestyle changes will be an important part of your treatment in order to prevent future heart damage.  Changes in diet, exercise, quitting smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels are essential to decrease the risk of a heart attack.  Your doctor may refer you to a Cardiac Rehabilitation center to help you get started with these changes. 

Recovery After a Heart Attack

The heart muscle begins to heal soon after a heart attack and usually takes about 8 weeks.  Scar tissue will form in the damaged areas.  The scar tissue does not move like the normal heart tissue, this means that the heart does not pump as well.  The loss of heart function depends on the size and location of the scar tissue.  Taking certain medications can help your heart to heal and help prevent another heart attack. 

Your doctor will talk to you about which medications are right for you. Some of the most common medications include:  Beta-Blockers, ACE Inhibitors, Cholesterol-lowering medications, and Anticoagulant drugs.  Along with the medications, lifestyle changes are very important as well for the prevention of future heart attacks.


Risk Factors for Heart Attack

There are 2 types of risk factors:  those you can change and those that are predetermined.  The risk factors that are predetermined include:  increasing age, male gender, and heredity. 

Since you can’t do anything about these risk factors, it’s even more important for you to manage the risk factors that can be changed.  The risk factors you can change include:
  • High Blood Pressure: high blood pressure or hypertension makes the heart work harder.  Uncontrolled high blood pressure can damage the lining of your arteries and raise your risk for developing heart disease.  High blood pressure is often called the “Silent Killer” because people with high blood pressure usually have no symptoms.  You have high blood pressure if at rest your blood pressure is greater than 140/90.
  • High Cholesterol: cholesterol is a soft, fat-like substance found in the blood and in all the body’s cells.  We need some cholesterol for the body to function normally, but too much cholesterol is bad for your body.  Excess cholesterol can build up in the walls of your arteries and narrow the arteries reducing blood flow.  People with high cholesterol have no symptoms.  It is important to learn your cholesterol numbers.  Everyone age 20 and older should have their cholesterol measured at least once every 5 years. 
  • Lack of Physical Activity: your heart is a muscle and must be exercised in order to remain strong and healthy.  Physical Activity can also help control blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. 
  • Obesity: People who have excess body fat are at higher risk for health problems.  These problems include:  high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.  People with excess body fat are at higher risk for heart attack even with no other risk factor. 
  • Diabetes: diabetes is a chronic disease.  Even when blood sugar levels are kept under good control, diabetes greatly increases your risk of heart attack.
  • Smoking or Exposure to 2nd Hand Smoke: Smoking tobacco or the exposure to tobacco smoke greatly increases your risk for heart attack.  The nicotine and carbon monoxide in the tobacco smoke reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood.  They also lead to damage to the walls of your arteries.  This makes it easier for plaque to build up.  Tobacco smoke may also cause blood  clots to form. 

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