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Over one and a half million people have heart attacks each year. Moreover, about one quarter of all deaths in the United States are caused by heart attacks. Thanks to new medications and better overall treatments, the death rate for patients suffering heart attacks has been steadily declining.

To receive some of these newer treatments, you must recognize if you are having a heart attack and quickly go to the emergency room.

What Causes a Heart Attack?
The heart is supplied with blood and oxygen by three special arteries, called the coronary arteries. Over the years, plaques can develop in the arteries and partially block the flow of blood through them. Occasionally, the surface of these plaques can break and become unstable. When that happens, blood clots tend to form on the surface of the plaques.

Rarely, these blood clots can lead to the complete blockage of blood flow through an artery. When this occurs, part of the heart is completely deprived of oxygen, and over the course of 30 minutes to several hours will begin to die. When some of the heart muscle dies like this, it is called a heart attack.

How to Tell if You Are Having a Heart Attack?
Different people experience a heart attack in different ways:
  • The pain of a heart attack may be like an episode of angina, only more intense and long-lasting.

  • Some people describe a feeling of crushing chest pain or severe chest tightness, as if an elephant were sitting on their chest.

  • Other people may experience pain or discomfort in the
    • arms
    • upper back
    • throat
    • jaw

  • About half of the people who have heart attacks also experience nausea.

  • Many others will break out into sweat.

  • Shortness of breath may accompany these symptoms, or sometimes be an only symptom someone having a heart attack will experience.

  • About one quarter of the people who have heart attacks have 'silent' heart attacks. They never have the usual symptoms associated with an attack.

When deprived of oxygen, heart tissue begins to die within 30 minutes. Since the risk of dying from the heart attack is the highest during the first hour after the pain starts, call 911 immediately if you think you are having a heart attack. Do not drive yourself! Don't let pride, vanity, or desire to tough it out be the cause of your death!

What Happens After a Heart Attack?
After a heart attack, you will usually be watched in the CCU (Critical Care Unit) for about two days. If you remain pain-free, you will be transferred to an intermediate care or step-down unit.

In the week after having a heart attack, you will undergo a program of cardiac rehabilitation designed to get you out of bed and walking again. This allows your healing heart and your deconditioned muscles to get back into shape.

If you remain pain-free after this period of cardiac rehabilitation, you may undergo stress test to help assess how well you heart is able to function. You may also need a cardiac catheterization.

When you are discharged from the hospital, make sure to meet with us to discuss how you can modify your lifestyle and eating habits to help avoid having later heart problems.

Useful Links
  1. Act in Time to Prevent Heart Attack
    National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute provides an extensive guide on preventing the heart attack, recognizing the warning signs, surviving it if it happens, and living with its consequences. The site also includes answers to frequently asked questions, act in time video, and a heart disease quiz.

  2. Heart Attack Interactive Tutorial
    Those who would like to spend some time and find out everything they can about heart attack should use this interactive tutorial from National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. The tutorial covers the symptoms, diagnosis, treatment of angina as well as other topics. Tutorial requires Flash plug-in for your browser.

  3. MEDLINEplus: Heart Attack
    This site will be an essential tool for those of our patients and their relatives who would like to do their own research about heart attacks. The site contains a wealth of information organized in helpful categories. It covers topics such as symptoms, diagnosis, clinical trials, and more.
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