During a heart attack, the blood supply that normally nourishes the heart with oxygen is cut off and the heart muscle begins to die. Heart attacks — also called myocardial infarctions — are very common in the United States. In fact, it’s estimated that one happens every 40 seconds.
Some people who are having a heart attack have warning signs, while others show no signs. Some symptoms that many people report are:
- chest pain
- upper body pain
- trouble breathing
A heart attack is a serious medical emergency. Seek immediate medical attention if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms that could signal a heart attack.
There are a few cardiac conditions that can cause heart attacks. One of the most common causes is plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis) that prevents blood from getting to the heart muscle.
Heart attacks can also be caused by blood clots or a torn blood vessel. Less commonly, a heart attack is caused by a blood vessel spasm.
Symptoms for a heart attack may include:
A number of factors can put you at risk for a heart attack. Some factors you can’t change, such as age and family history. Other factors, called modifiable risk factors, are ones you can change.
Risk factors that you can’t change include:
- Age. If you’re over age 65, your risk for having a heart attack is greater.
- Sex. 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’re more at risk.
- Race. People of African descent have a higher risk.
Modifiable risk factors which you can change include:
A diagnosis of a heart attack is made by a doctor after they perform a physical exam and review your medical history. Your doctor will likely conduct an electrocardiogram (ECG) to monitor your heart’s electrical activity.
They should also take a sample of your blood or perform other tests to see if there’s evidence of heart muscle damage.
Tests and treatments
If your doctor diagnoses a heart attack, they’ll use a variety of tests and treatments, depending on the cause.
Your doctor may order a cardiac catheterization. This is a probe that’s inserted into your blood vessels through a soft flexible tube called a catheter. It allows your doctor to view areas where plaque may have 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, as well as view any blockages.
If you’ve had a heart attack, your doctor may recommend a procedure (surgery or nonsurgical). Procedures can relieve pain and help prevent another heart attack from occurring.
Common procedures include:
- Angioplasty. An angioplasty opens the blocked artery by using a balloon or by removing the plaque buildup.
- Stent. A stent is a wire mesh tube that’s inserted into the artery to keep it open after angioplasty.
- Heart bypass surgery. In bypass surgery, your doctor reroutes the blood around the blockage.
- Heart valve surgery. In valve replacement surgery, your leaky valves are replaced to help the heart pump.
- Pacemaker. A pacemaker is a device implanted beneath the skin. It’s designed to help your heart maintain a normal rhythm.
- Heart transplant. A transplant is performed in severe cases where the heart attack has caused permanent tissue death to most of the heart.
Your doctor may also prescribe medications to treat your heart attack, including:
- drugs to break up clots
- antiplatelet and anticoagulants, also known as blood thinners
- blood pressure medication
Doctors who treat heart attacks
Since heart attacks are often unexpected, an emergency room doctor is usually the first to treat them. After the person is stable, they’re transferred to a doctor that specializes in the heart, called a cardiologist.
Alternative treatments and lifestyle changes can improve your heart health and reduce your risk of a heart attack. A healthy diet and lifestyle are essential in maintaining a healthy heart.
Several complications are associated with heart attacks. 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 failure.
Heart attacks can also affect your heart valves and cause leaks. The amount of time it takes to receive treatment and the area of damage will determine the long-term effects on your heart.
While there are many risk factors that are out of your control, there are still some basic steps you can take to keep your heart healthy. Smoking is a major cause of heart disease. Starting a smoking cessation program can reduce your risk. Maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, and limiting your alcohol intake are other important ways to reduce your risk.
If you have diabetes, be sure to take your medications and check your blood glucose levels regularly. If you have a heart condition, 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.