What Is a Heart Attack?

Published May 17, 2012

| NewsCore

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, is often spurred by a blood clot that prevents blood, and life-giving oxygen, from reaching the heart. Heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the leading killer of both men and women.

Causes
When nutrient-infused blood cannot reach the heart, or is reduced significantly, a heart attack occurs. Without the oxygen from blood, the heart's muscle cells start to die off.

This reduction or cessation in blood may stem from a variety of factors, the most common being the hardening-arterial disease, arteriosclerosis, caused by plaque buildup.

Cigarette smoke, high blood pressure and high cholesterol may exacerbate or trigger such diseases. A healthy lifestyle of a balanced diet and regular exercise decreases your risk of heart attack.

Symptoms
Although some are immediate, the majority of heart attacks start slowly. Tanvir Hussain, board-certified general cardiologist, reported, "The biggest misconception about heart attacks is about the initial symptoms."

They commence with mild pain or discomfort in the chest, usually lasting more than a few minutes. It may stop and start. This chest pain, or angina, is the primary symptom. The victim may characterize the pain as heaviness or pressure.

You may experience pain or irritation in your arms, back, stomach, jaw or neck as well.

These warning signs are often coupled with shortness of breath, lightheartedness, cold sweats or nausea, as reported by the American Heart Association.

To minimize heart damage, you should visit an emergency room immediately if experiencing such symptoms.

Diagnosis
According to the Mayo Clinic, the medical staff will ask about your medical history and how heart disease has affected your family. The electrocardiogram is the first diagnostic test, which traces the heart's electrical activity by attaching electrodes to the skin. Impulsed are transmitted to a monitor for examination. A damaged heart does not produce typical electrical impulses.

Medical professionals will also test the victim's blood for particular heart enzymes that leak from the heart during an attack.

A chest X-ray can assess the size of the heart and establish whether fluid has penetrated the lungs. Doctors may also use CT or MRI scans to do so.

An echocardiogram uses sound waves from a transducer to generate images of the heart, for damage inspection.

An angiogram allows the doctor to see if the coronary arteries are blocked. Using a catheter, a thin tube, the doctor injects a liquid dye into the arteries. With an X-ray, this dye will reveal the extent to which the arteries are blocked.

Treatment
One of the most effective treatments is an emergency angioplasty to reopen a clogged artery. Fred Leya, an interventional cardiologist at Loyola University Medical Center, explained that time is of the essence for this procedure. "If we can reopen the artery within 30 minutes," he said, "there will be essentially no damage. If we do it within 30 to 60 minutes, there will be minimal damage." For this reason, cardiologist refer to the first 60 minutes as the Golden Hour.

For an angioplasty, the doctor inserts a catheter, with a special balloon, into the heart's clogged artery. The balloon is inflated slightly to open the blocked artery. A metal mesh stent may be inserted to maintain wideness.

Sometimes surgeons perform bypass surgery. Doctors may administer various drugs: aspirin and thrombolytics to dissolve blood clots, nitroglycerin to alleviate chest pain and beta blockers to reduce blood pressure.

One may undergo an exercise stress test to discover how the heart and blood vessels handle physical activity.

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