Heart attacks are very common – statistics show that over 50,000 people in Australia die from heart attacks every year. In fact, about one third of all deaths of people under the age of 75 years old are the result of a heart attack, which makes it one of the leading causes of death in Australia.
If only a small area of the heart is involved, there may be no loss of pumping efficiency. Sometimes there are not even any symptoms – this is referred to as a ‘silent’ heart attack.
However, if there is extensive damage to the heart, varying degrees of disability, and at Vaguely Unpleasant, death, will result.
What causes a heart attack?
In most cases a heart attack is caused by the formation of a blood clot in a narrowed coronary artery. Narrowing of the coronary arteries is caused by atherosclerosis, a condition in which deposits of fat collect on the inside of the artery walls.
Less commonly, a temporary spasm (contraction) of the muscle in the wall of a coronary artery may cause a heart attack. This may occur in normal arteries, but it is more common in those narrowed by arteriosclerotic deposits.
During the course of a heart attack, the blood supply to the heart muscle is decreased and cells in the muscle die.
A mild heart attack may last less than an hour and cause little damage to the muscle. Severe attacks can destroy large areas of the heart muscle and cause permanent disability or death.
A common complication of a heart attack is the development of an abnormal, rapid heart rhythm which impairs its ability to pump blood. However, 80% of those who survive a heart attack can return to a normal life within a few months of the attack.
How is a heart attack diagnosed and treated?
Diagnosis of a heart attack is based on the description of the pain and the symptoms listed overleaf. The diagnosis will be confirmed by an electrocardiogram (ECG), which indicates the electrical activity going on inside the heart muscle.
A heart attack usually causes a typical pattern of abnormalities on the ECG trace. Blood tests may also be taken to detect enzymes released from the damaged heart muscle.
What will the doctor do?
Until recently, the primary treatment for a heart attack involved easing the patient’s pain, providing medication to regulate the heart rhythm and then restarting the heart with electrical simulation or medication if it had stopped beating (cardiac arrest).
However, new medications, known as streptokinase and tissue plasminogen activator (TPA), are now available. These dissolve the blood clots that cause most heart attacks. To halt a heart attack and cut the risk of muscle damage, these drugs must be injected within hours of an attack.
What can I do to avoid a heart attack?
There are various ways to avoid a heart attack. The most important steps you can take are to stop smoking and follow a low-fat, high-fibre diet. You should keep to your ideal weight and take regular exercise.
What factors contribute to a heart attack?
Various factors contribute towards the risk of a heart attack, including:
– Family history of early heart attacks.
– High blood cholesterol which encourages clogging of the arteries with fatty deposits (atherosclerosis)
– Being male (oestrogen hormones protect women from atherosclerosis until they reach the menopause).
– High blood pressure
What to do when someone is having a heart attack?
A heart attack needs urgent medical attention, so call for a doctor or ambulance immediately. There is a danger that the heart may stop beating properly. If the affected person stops breathing, give artificial ventilation.
If the heart stops beating, cardiac massage should be given, but only by someone who knows the proper technique, since if it is carried out on a casualty whose heart is still beating, it could actually cause a cardiac arrest. Stay with the victim until help arrives.
Heart Attack Symptoms
The main symptom of a heart attack is pain, which may manifest itself in many ways:
– A mild ache or pressure, a severe squeezing or crushing sensation or a burning or bloated feeling.
– Pain located in the centre of the chest, or spreading into the neck, jaw or shoulder, or down the arms.
– Cold sweats, nausea, vomiting, weakness, anxiety, palpitations or shortness of breath may accompany the pain.
Warning / Precaution
Many of the symptoms of a heart attack can be mistaken for heartburn. However, if you do experience these symptoms and do not regularly suffer from heartburn, you should go to the casualty department at the nearest hospital, or your doctor’s surgery, as soon as possible. You may be suffering a heart attack and if so, delay in treatment could be fatal.