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Heart Attack Learning Center

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Heart Attack

Heart attacks (myocardial infarctions) are a very common occurrence in the United States. During a heart attack, the blood supply that normally nourishes the heart with oxygen is cut off and the heart muscle begins to die.

Some people who experience heart attacks have symptoms, while others show no signs. Many people who have a heart attack report they have chest pain, fatigue, and trouble breathing.

A heart attack is a serious medical emergency. Seek immediate medical attention if you or someone you know are experiencing symptoms that could signal a heart attack.

Causes of Heart Attack

There are a few cardiac conditions that can cause heart attacks. One of the most common causes is when plaque builds up in arteries (arthrosclerosis) and prevents blood from getting to the heart. Heart attacks can also be caused by blood clots or a torn blood vessel. Less commonly, a heart attack can be caused by a blood vessel spasm.

Heart Attack Risk Factors

There are factors that can put you at risk for having a heart attack. Some factors you can’t change, such as age and family history. Other factors, called modifiable risk factors, you can change to decrease your odds of having heart attacks. The risk factors for heart attacks are that you can’t change include:

  • age: If you are over age 65, your risk for having a heart attack is greater.
  • gender: Men are more at risk than women.
  • family history: If you have a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, or diabetes you are more at risk.
  • race: African-Americans are more at risk for having a heart attack.

Modifiable risk factors include:

  • smoking
  • having high cholesterol
  • obesity
  • lack of exercise
  • diet and alcohol consumption
  • stress

Heart Attack Symptoms and Diagnosis

A diagnosis of a heart attack is made by a doctor after performing a physical exam and reviewing your medical history. Your doctor will likely give you and electrocardiogram (ECG) to monitor your heart’s electrical activity and see if you are experiencing a heart attack. Your doctor should also take a sample of your blood or perform other tests to see if you have evidence of definite heart muscle damage.

Heart Attack Tests and Treatments

If your doctor diagnoses a heart attack, there are several tests and treatments that may be performed depending on the cause of your heart attack. Your doctor may order a cardiac catheterization. This is a probe that’s inserted into your blood vessels so your doctor can view areas where plaque may be built up. Your doctor can also inject dye into your arteries through the catheter and take an x-ray to see how the blood flows and view areas of blockage.

If you have had a heart attack, your doctor may order either a nonsurgical procedure or actual surgery to help relieve the pain and prevent another heart attack. Some procedures are:

  • angioplasty: opens the blocked artery by using a balloon or by removing the plaque build up
  • bypass surgery: rerouting the blood around the block
  • heart valve surgery: replacing leaky valves to help the heart pump
  • pacemaker: inserting a device to help your heart maintain a normal rhythm
  • heart transplant: in severe cases where the heart attack has caused permanent tissue death to most of the heart

Your doctor may also prescribe medications to help treat your heart attack including:

  • aspirin and/or other anti-platelet drugs
  • drugs to break up clots
  • anticoagulants (also known as blood thinners)
  • painkillers
  • nitroglycerin
  • blood pressure medication

Doctors Who Treat Heart Attacks

Since heart attacks are often unexpected, an emergency room doctor is usually the first to treat heart attacks. After the person is stable they are usually transferred to a doctor that specializes in heart problems (cardiologist).

Heart Attack Complications

Several complications can happen because of a heart attack. When a heart attack occurs, it can disrupt your heart’s normal rhythm, potentially stopping it altogether. These abnormal rhythms are known as arrhythmias. When your heart stops getting a supply of blood during the heart attack, some of the tissue can die. This can weaken the heart and later cause life-threatening conditions such as heart rupture or heart failure. Heart attacks can also affect your heart valves and cause leaks.

Heart Attack Prevention

While there are many risk factors that are out of your control, there are some basic prevention activities you can perform to keep your heart healthy. Smoking is a major cause of heart disease. Starting a smoking cessation program can reduce your risk of heart disease. Maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, and limiting alcohol intake are key measures for reducing your risk. If you have diabetes, be sure to take your medication and check your blood glucose. If you have a heart condition, be sure to work closely with your doctor and take your medication. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about your risk of a heart attack.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Tricia Kinman
Published on Oct 31, 2014
Medically reviewed on Oct 31, 2014 by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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