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What is a Heart Attack?

By Dignity Health Editorial Team September 13, 2019 Posted in: Article

Over one million people experience a heart attack each year.

A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart muscle is suddenly cut off, and the heart can’t get enough oxygen. Heart attacks are typically caused by ischemic heart disease. This is when plaque builds up in the coronary arteries which supply blood to the heart.

If an area of plaque ruptures, a blood clot can form which disrupts the blood flow in that artery, causing a heart attack.

Signs of a Heart Attack

Heart attack symptoms are a medical emergency: if not treated quickly, a heart attack can be fatal. The following are potential signs you may be suffering from a heart attack:

  • Chest pain, which can feel like pinching, intense pressure, or burning
  • Chest discomfort or tightness
  • Pain or tingling which starts in the chest and spreads to the jaw, throat, neck, or shoulders
  • Pain which radiates from the chest down the left side of the body and left arm
  • Pain in the stomach above the navel
  • Nausea, vomiting, heartburn, or indigestion
  • A sudden cold sweat
  • Lethargy or suddenly feeling fatigued
  • Shortness of breath while at rest or after light activity
  • Fainting or dizziness indicating a blood pressure decrease

Individually, some of these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions. There is also a great deal of individual variation when it comes to heart attack symptoms; women in particular are more likely to ascribe their heart attack symptoms to the flu, heartburn, or other conditions.

However, it’s always worth seeking care to rule out a heart attack if you experience any of these, particularly if any of them are accompanied by chest pain. When experiencing and treating a heart attack, time is of the essence: the longer your heart is deprived of oxygenated blood, the more likely it is that the muscle will be permanently damaged. It is vitally important to seek medical attention immediately if you believe you or your loved one may be having a heart attack.

Seeking treatment right away could impact how fully you recover from the heart attack. Azadeh Toofaninejad, DO, a cardiologist with the Mercy Medical Group in California, warns, “If there is a delay in seeking medical attention after a heart attack, cardiac muscle can become permanently damaged and recovery will be suboptimal due to interrupted blood flow.” 

Recovering from a Heart Attack

That’s not to say full recovery from a heart attack isn’t possible. Dr. Toofaninejad also says, “If at the time of the heart attack, symptoms are recognized quickly and medical attention is sought right away, the blocked artery may be opened up, restoring normal blood flow without any damage to cardiac function. In that case, full recovery back to baseline is likely.”

Dr. Toofaninejad further explains that full cardiac function can often be restored through percutaneous coronary intervention, a procedure intended to open blocked arteries. These interventions include laser or balloon angioplasty and/or stent placement to maintain blood flow through the heart’s arteries.

Risk Factors Associated with Heart Attack

You may have a higher risk of heart attack if you have a family history of premature cardiovascular disease. Dr. Toofaninejad says, “Family history is an independent risk factor for coronary artery disease.” She goes on to explain, “Atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease or death from cardiovascular disease in a first degree relative, meaning your parent or your sibling, prior to age 55 in males or 65 in females indicates a significant family history.”

Additional common risk factors associated with heart attack include:

  • Hypertension
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Hyperlipidemia
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Obesity

Reducing Your Risk of Experiencing a Heart Attack

Dr. Toofaninejad says there are several things you can do to reduce your risk of a heart attack. Chief among them is to quit smoking, eat a healthy, balanced diet, and to engage in cardio exercise for at least 30 minutes, five times a week.

Maintaining normal blood pressure and glucose levels are also essential, as is maintaining cholesterol. If you are unsure what those healthy, normal cholesterol levels are, Dr. Toofaninejad urges, “Check with your medical provider regarding the recommended cholesterol level for you based on your age and other risk factors.” Doing so could help you prevent a heart attack and even save your life.

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