Anatomy of a Heart Attack

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to a portion of the heart has been stopped by a blockage of some sort. If the blood flow isn’t restored to the heart quickly enough, the section of heart muscle without blood becomes damaged due to a lack of oxygen and begins to die.

Heart attacks are the leading killers of both men and women in the United States. Today, fortunately, there are a number of treatments for heart attacks that can both save lives and prevent disabilities. Treatment is most effective when it is started within one hour of the beginning of symptoms. The minute symptoms of a heart attack occur or a person suspects a heart attack, it is important to dial 911 immediately.

Heart attacks are most frequently caused as a result of a condition known as coronary artery disease, or CAD. In CAD, a fatty material known as plaque builds up over many years on the walls of the coronary arteries. The coronary arteries are the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. Eventually, a plaque filled area can rupture. This causes a blood clot to form on the surface of the plaque. When and if the clot becomes large enough, it can completely block or partially block the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the portion of the heart muscle that is fed by that specific artery.

In a heart attack, if the blockage in the coronary artery isn’t treated very quickly, the heart muscle will begin to die. It is replaced by scar tissue. The damage to the heart might not be obvious but it may cause severe or long-lasting problems.

Some of the problems linked to heart attack include heart failure and life-threatening arrhythmias. Arrhythmias are irregular heartbeats. Heart failure is a condition in which the heart is incapable of pumping enough blood through the body. Ventricular fibrillation is a serious arrhythmia which can cause death if it is not treated quickly. In many instances ventricular fibrillation is treated with an internal defibrillator that acts in much the same way as a pacemaker.

Acting fast at the first signs of a heart attack can save a person’s life and limit the damage to the person’s heart. Treatment is most effective when it is started within 1 hour of the beginning of symptoms.

The most common signs and symptoms of a heart attack are:

– Chest discomfort or pain

– Upper body discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach

– Shortness of breath

– Nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness or fainting, and breaking out in a cold sweat