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Your body relies on the oxygen-rich blood your heart pumps out to your brain, toes and everything in between. The heart muscle also needs replenished blood to do its job. When the flow of blood to fuel the muscle is interrupted, it’s a heart attack.
Clinically, it’s called a myocardial infarction to describe a loss of blood flow (infarction) to the heart muscle (myocardium).
If you’ve ever had a cramp in your calf or other muscle, you’ve gotten a taste of the pain that decreased blood flow to a muscle can cause. Now, imagine that your heart isn’t getting enough blood, and you get a better idea of why a heart attack causes chest pain.
Massaging a leg cramp can help restore blood flow and get you back up and around. Treating a heart attack is all about restoring blood flow to the heart muscle.
Treating a heart attack can range from medication designed to break up blood clots, thin blood, widen the blood vessels, lower blood pressure and slow the heartbeat. Medications can include beta blockers, thrombolytics or fibrinolytics, nitroglycerin and others.
Depending on the severity of the heart attack, minimally invasive techniques may be used to reopen a clogged artery. In these cases, a thin catheter is inserted into a blood vessel in the groin and threaded up to the site of the clogged artery. The procedure, percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), allows the interventional cardiologist to directly address the blockage without major surgery.
An interventional cardiologist can employ a number of methods to restore blood flow. A tiny balloon can be deployed to widen the artery. A stent or wire tubular mesh may be placed to help keep the artery open.
In some cases, open heart surgery is needed, such as coronary artery bypass surgery (CABG). The surgeon uses a healthy blood vessel from another part of the body and creates a new blood vessel to the heart, bypassing the blocked or narrowed arteries.
Women can have unique heart attack symptoms
Heart attack symptoms can start days or weeks ahead of the actual heart attack. These “pre-heart-attack symptoms” can appear days or weeks ahead of the actual heart attack. While there are common signs regardless of gender, there may be some unique symptoms that tend to affect women more than men.
Early signs and symptoms of a heart attack may occur in 50% of patients. Recognizing the beginning of a heart attack means treatment can begin before any damage.
Someone may show one or more of these common heart attack signs. When they start, they can be mild or come and go. Over time, the symptoms and pain become more intense. Stay alert and always pay attention to chest pressure.
A mild heart attack can last a few minutes, with symptoms easing with rest. Severe heart attacks can go on for 20 minutes or more.
The most common cause of heart attacks is coronary artery disease, which is typically caused by the buildup of cholesterol. In the right amount, cholesterol helps the body function. Too much of it, however, causes waxy plaque that can cling to the walls of your arteries. Narrower arteries limit the amount of blood that can reach your heart muscle.
Lowering the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in your blood helps prevent future plaque buildup, but won’t remove existing plaque. Diagnostic tools used at Norton Heart & Vascular Institute allow cardiologists to see where arteries have narrowed and by how much. This test, known as a CT-FFR, is noninvasive, using data collected from a CT scan to build a 3D image of your heart — revealing blockages that don’t always show up on conventional tests.
Heart attacks can happen without significant obstructions in your arteries. Some of these rarer causes are more common in those assigned female at birth, especially those who are or have been pregnant.
Identifying underlying causes of heart disease and putting you on a path to address them starts with annual check ups with your primary care provider.
Tests in the emergency department didn’t reveal the source of Dan English’s chest pain. A noninvasive way to measure blood flow around the heart later showed Dan was at risk of a “widow-maker” heart attack.
Read Dan’s story
High blood pressure, if left uncontrolled, can affect your heart, kidneys, brain and other major organs. High blood pressure usually has no symptoms and can be detected only by blood pressure checks. Medication and lifestyle changes can reduce your blood pressure.
Cholesterol is made by your liver, but your diet can create more cholesterol than your body needs. The excess builds up as waxy plaques on the walls of your arteries, limiting blood flow. LDL cholesterol can cause plaque buildup in your arteries. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, on the other hand, can provide some protection against heart disease.
A lipid blood test measures your cholesterol levels.
Type 2 diabetes carries a higher risk of death from heart disease in adults.
Obesity typically comes with higher LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels and lower levels of HDL cholesterol. Obesity also can trigger high blood pressure and diabetes.
When someone is having a heart attack, seconds count. It is critical to connect with quality heart attack care.
Norton Heart & Vascular Institute has been recognized by the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiologists and others for providing quality heart attack care that stays at the forefront of lifesaving methods and procedures.
Many heart attack patients can be treated quickly with minimally invasive percutaneous cardiology intervention that reopens blocked blood vessels and can help prevent future heart attacks.
The care delivered by the Norton Heart & Vascular Institute doesn’t stop once you’ve started your post-heart attack life.
We’ll be there to provide support through Connecting Hearts for Support and other resources.
Norton Heart & Vascular Institute offers patient resources to support you and your family, including free classes for people of all ages who are seeking to improve cardiovascular health or living with a heart condition.
Cardiac Rehabilitation Program
Our cardiac rehabilitation providers are leaders in developing and applying innovative techniques that can help you recover and resume your life.
Connecting Hearts Support Group
The group provides education and support to individuals who have had a heart attack, are living with a heart condition or are at risk for cardiovascular disease.
Heart Health Screenings
Prevention is the best way to manage heart disease, and screenings are available to detect early signs of cardiac and vascular disease and identify risk factors.
Every year, more than 137,000 people in Louisville and Southern Indiana choose Norton Heart & Vascular Institute specialists for their heart and vascular care. That’s more than any other health care provider.
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