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Disease at a Glance: Heart Attack

Heart attack, or myocardial infarction as it’s medically known, occurs when blood-flow to the heart is disrupted for a prolonged period, starving it of the much-needed oxygen and, thereby, damaging the heart muscle. Risk of damage to the heart muscle increases with every passing minute, so it’s essential to seek out medical assistance immediately. Every minute counts in the race to save the heart from irreversible damage caused by the lack of oxygen.  

 

The heart, like any other organ, requires oxygen (and other nutrients) to do its job properly. Depriving it of oxygen, compromises its ability to pump blood. Blood vessels that deliver oxygen-rich blood to the heart are called coronary arteries (similarly, blood vessels that remove deoxygenated blood from the heart are called coronary or cardiac veins).

 

One of the most common causes of heart attack is atherosclerosis, or build-up of plaque in the blood vessels. When the coronary arteries become clogged with fat, cholesterol, triglycerides and calcium (the medical term is plaque), it limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart. When this plaque ruptures, it creates a blood clot, which can completely block the flow of blood to the heart. Atherosclerosis is asymptomatic, so a person has no way of knowing he or she is at risk! Other causes of heart attack include spasm of the coronary artery, blood clots that may have travelled from other parts of the body, severe infection, high blood pressure, etc.

 

Common Symptoms

Crushing pain or tightness in the chest that doesn’t subside in 10-15 minutes

Profuse sweating
Shortness of breadth
Dizziness, nausea & vomiting
Anxiety & sleep disturbance

 

Because myocardial infarction is a medical emergency, it’s important to recognize the symptoms. The most common is a crushing pain or tightness in the chest that doesn’t subside in 10-15 minutes – the pain usually starts in the centre of the chest and radiates down the arm or up the neck and jawline.

 

Other symptoms include profuse sweating, shortness of breadth, dizziness, nausea & vomiting, anxiety and sleep disturbance. Heart attack can also occur without any accompanying symptoms and then gets discovered later through an electrocardiogram (EEG). The risk of heart attack increases with age – this is not to say it doesn’t strike the young! Other risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, stress and a history of heart disease.

 

Heart attack is commonly confused with angina (a medical condition caused by the heart not getting enough oxygen). The pain in angina is similar to the pain a heart attack, but the difference is that the pain usually doesn’t last for a long time. Put simply, when the heart is crying for help it’s angina. When the heart muscle is already damaged or destroyed, it’s a heart attack.

 

References:

1) American Heart Association (www.heart.org)
2) Mayo Clinic (www.mayoclinic.org)
3) The Heart Foundation (www.heartfoundation.org.au)
4) John Hopkins Medicine (www.hopkinsmedicine.org)
5) National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (www.nhlbi.nih.gov)

 

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