Easy Guide To: Myocardial Infarction Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Heart Facts For Women


Heart Attacks In Women


What Are Heart Attacks?
What Are The Symptoms?
What Do I Do If I Have a Heart Attack?
What Causes Heart Attacks?
How Are Heart Attacks Treated?
Can Further Heart Attacks Be Prevented?

Do Heart Attacks Run In The Family?
Does a Heart Flutter Mean Something?
Should I Take Aspirin?


Angina Attack
Circulatory System
Coronary Heart Disease
Chest Pain in Women
Congestive Heart Failure
Heart Disease in Women
Heart Arrhythmia
Stroke in Women

Guide To Heart Attacks

Silent Heart Attack
Risk Factors
Heart Attack Rehabilitation
Questions & Answers
Sudden Cardiac Arrest
Home Defibrillator

Heart Attacks: Explained

A heart attack occurs when part of the heart muscle suddenly dies due to a blockage in the blood vessels supplying that part of the heart (image). As the muscle is starved of blood and oxygen it can cause a severe squeezing sensation which radiates out from the center of the chest. Most heart attacks are caused by a blood clot (thrombus) blocking one of the coronary arteries, a typical outcome of coronary heart disease (CHD). The longer the blockage is in place, the greater the loss of heart muscle and the greater the risk of death. Most people mistakenly believe that a heart attack is a heart stoppage. This is not true. During a heart attack the heart continues to pump (but more weakly). If the heart were to suddenly stop pumping, the person would immediately collapse unconscious and die within minutes. This is known as sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). If a person suffers a major heart attack, where several of the major arteries become blocked at the same time, this can quickly lead to SCA. Each year 8.5 million Americans suffer a heart attack, 500,000 of which result in death. A heart attack happens about every 20 seconds and about half of deaths due to a heart attack happen outside of hospital and occur within an hour of symptoms appearing. According to Women's Heart Foundation, the most common time for a heart attack to occur is 10am on a Monday morning. A heart attack is technically called myocardial infarction. For other facts, see heart disease statistics.

Women and Heart Attacks

There is a common misconception that heart disease is a man's problem, not a woman's. This flies in the face of reality because 267,000 women die every year in America from heart attacks, which is 6 times the number that die from breast cancer. Although heart disease in women typically develops later than men, by the age of 65 a woman's risk is almost the same as a man's. Perhaps because of this misconception, women are less likely than men to believe they are having a heart attack and are more likely to delay treatment. This has an effect on prognosis, 38 percent of women will die within one year of a recognized heart attack, compared to 25 percent of men. Women are also twice as likely to die within a few weeks of a heart attack than men. Despite this, there has been surprisingly very little research carried out on the best ways to diagnose, treat and prevent cardiovascular disease in women. Women comprise only 24 percent of all heart related studies.

What Are The Symptoms of a Heart Attack?

Heart attack symptoms (image) usually strike suddenly and last for more than 20 minutes, although occasionally signs can come and go. The following is a list of possible symptoms:

• Pain, squeezing or pressure in the center of the chest.
• Stabbing chest pain in women which can radiate to the neck, back, arms and jaws.
• Shortness of breath and difficulties breathing.
Heart palpitations or pounding heartbeats.
• Nausea, vomiting or severe indigestion.
• Dizziness with weakness.
• Sweating for no obvious reason.
• Suddenly feeling extremely fatigued.
• Panic with feeling a feeling that something awful is about to happen.

One of the reasons why women are less likely to recognize they are having a heart attack is because they often experience milder symptoms. Nearly 33 percent experience no chest pain, one of the more classic symptoms. A further 71 percent of women report flu-like symptoms for 2-4 weeks prior to having severe shortness of breath and acute chest discomfort. These milder symptoms are often under-reported in emergency departments.

Conditions which cause symptoms similar to a heart attack include:

• Stress and anxiety.
• Injury to the ribs or surrounding area.
• Pleurisy (inflammation in the lining surrounding the lungs).
• Fibromyositis (inflammation of muscles).
• Pulmonary embolism (blood clot to the lung).
• Pneumonia.
• Pneumothorax (collapsed lung).

What Do I Do If I Suspect a Heart Attack?

• Dial 9-1-1 and tell them 'I am having a heart attack'. Leave the phone off the hook so that if you pass out the emergency services can trace your phone call. If you are by yourself, leave the main door unlocked so that the paramedics can enter.
• Sit or lie down until the paramedics arrive.
• If you have been keeping a heart diary, keep it near you.
• Chew an uncoated aspirin as this can help reduce heart muscle damage.
• If paramedics are not available, get to your nearest medical facility with 24 emergency cardiac care or to one of your nearest chest pain clinics. Do not drive yourself.
• At the emergency center, get treatment quickly. Coronary angioplasty and clot busting medications work best the sooner they are applied. Every minute literally counts.

What Happens at Hospital?

Heart attack treatment: The doctor will order electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG) (image) and blood work to see if a heart attack has occurred. If the ECG returns a normal result, more heart attack tests may be necessary. Emergency room doctors are trained to recognize the signs of a heart attack so that they can begin treatment quickly.

The emergency care doctor may feel you are not in any danger of further heart attacks and may say you can go home. If you are not happy with this decision, insist on seeing a cardiologist before being released and insist on staying overnight for observation.

When describing your symptoms try to be as clear as possible. What symptoms do you have? Shortness of breath, chest pain, extreme fatigue? When did the symptoms first appear and what were you doing at the time? Are the symptoms getting worse or when were they most intense? On a scale of 1 to 10 what is your pain level and what medications have you taken recently?

What Causes Heart Attacks?

Causes of heart attacks: Most people believe that a heart attack is caused by the slow, progressive build up of deposits (called atherosclerosis - image) in their arteries which occur over a lifetime. However scientists now believe that this is not true. They think that most heart attacks occur when unstable atherosclerotic plaque suddenly breaks from the wall of the artery, causing an open wound (image). Blood platelets rush to the wound to form a protective clot, called a thrombus. The clot can enlarge within a matter of minutes, obstructing blood flow causing angina pain. If it becomes completely obstructed, a heart attack occurs. Heart attacks caused in this manner are much more lethal than ones which occur due a blockage which has built up over time. This is because a slow blockage may have had a chance to develop 'collaterals' (image). These are smaller blood vessels which grow to take some of the workload off the bigger vessel which is gradually closing down.

How are Heart Attacks Treated?

Early treatment of a heart attack can limit damage to the heart muscle. Certain treatments are usually started straight away, even before a heart attack has been diagnosed. These are:

Prescribing aspirin to thin the blood and prevent further clotting.

Prescribing nitrate medications (a common angina treatment) to reduce the heart's workload and improve blood flow.

If at any time the patient falls unconscious their heart may have stopped beating (sudden cardiac arrest). If this occurs an automated external defibrillator (AED) will be used to apply shock to try and start it again.

Once a diagnosis of a heart attack is confirmed by ECG, doctors will start treatment to quickly restore blood flow to the heart. These treatments are (1) thrombolytic clot buster drugs and (2) angioplasty. Both are best performed within 30 to 90 minutes of a heart attack.

Clot Busting Drugs
These are medications called thrombolytics which are used to break up blood clots. They cannot be taken by people with bleeding complications, so caution is applied. Common brand names include Retavase, TNKase, Activase and Streptase.

Also known as coronary angioplasty and percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), this procedure (image) involves placing a slender tube called a catheter through the artery to the affected area. The catheter (or cath) is tipped with a balloon and is inflated at the blocked spot to widen the artery. Blood flow will then be able to resume. An emergency angioplasty is usually the first treatment a heart attack patient will receive. However, it does require a medical establishment to have certain facilities, such as a catheterization lab and skilled PCI medical team. If these are not available, clot busting drugs will be used.

I live in a small community. If I have a heart attack, is it better to be taken to a small local community or to the city and a larger hospital?

Although a small community hospital is unlikely to be equipped for an angioplasty, it is still the first option. Fast treatment is critical when it comes to a heart attack. This means, it is better to prescribe clot busting medications sooner, rather than delaying treatment by several hours waiting for an angioplasty. If your condition later warrants full cardiac services, you can always be transferred.

Can Further Heart Attacks be Prevented?

Second and even third heart attacks are quite common. Studies show that patients who attend cardiac rehabilitation programs have significantly fewer recurrences of heart attacks (up to 25 percent fewer cases). Cardiac rehab is a structured program of education and activity, focused on teaching lifestyle modification and increasing functional capabilities and providing peer support. Heart attack patients will learn about lifestyle modifications such as exercising, quitting smoking, taking antihypertensive medications, managing diabetes and high cholesterol as well as diet changes. Programs follow guidelines issued by the American College of Cardiology in 2006. For a longer-term outlook and tips on preventing heart attacks, see CHD prevention and heart attack prevention.

Do Heart Attacks Run in the Family?

Genetics certainly play a factor. If your mother or sister suffered a heart attack or some other type of heart disease such as CHD or an angina attack before the age of 55, you are more likely to develop heart disease. Your heart attack risk factors are also considered high. You should pay extra attention to heart attack prevention.

Does a Heart Flutter Mean Something?

Sometimes our heart does beat faster, this can be caused by stress, anxiety, smoking or drinking. Normally a skipped heart beat is quite harmless. An occasional racing heart or a few flutters are not usually something to worry about. However, if you notice that it starts to happen more regularly than normal, or that it is accompanied by new symptoms such as shortness of breath or chest pain, call your doctor immediately.

Should I Take Aspirin To Prevent a Heart Attack?

Taking aspirin daily (known as aspirin therapy) may be particularly helpful for women who are at high risk of CHD, or those who have already had a heart attack. If you are considering taking aspirin, discuss this with your doctor first. Aspirin can have serious unwanted side-effects if mixed with other medications. For more questions on this and other topics see, female health questions.

  Other Useful Guides

Recommended Health Screenings For Women: List for all ages.
The Female Body: How it works, visual guide with pictures.
Chest Problems In Women: Check your symptoms.
Back and Neck Problems: Signs, descriptions and diagnosis.

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