The cardiac muscle in your heart needs a lot of energy to keep pumping day in and day out, and the mitochondria in these cardiac muscle cells need a constant supply of oxygen to create all of this energy. If this oxygen supply is reduced or stopped, even briefly, it can be a life-threatening event. Known as a “myocardial infarction”, or more commonly, a “heart attack”, there are several possible causes as well as several tell-tale symptoms. Learning to spot these symptoms just might save a life, possibly your own.
Your heart receives oxygenated blood through a system of blood vessels known as the “coronary arteries”. This system is separate from the main blood flow being pumped through the heart to other parts of the body and is the only source of blood supply to the heart muscle. These blood vessels can become blocked by either a build-up of plaque on the blood vessel wall, a blood clot, compression by a hernia or tumor or by certain drugs which cause the blood vessel to spasm shut.
When the coronary arteries become partially blocked, the blood flow is reduced but not stopped. Although this can have no outward symptoms, it is often accompanied by a feeling of pain, pressure or squeezing in the chest known as “angina”. This pain can also manifest in the upper abdomen, back, jaw and arms and is often accompanied by breathlessness and weakness. If you notice such symptoms in yourself or others, seek immediate medical attention as angina can be a critical warning sign that a heart attack is imminent.
When the blood flow to part of the heart is stopped, usually by the same mechanisms that cause angina, the heart muscle no longer receives any oxygen, becomes damaged and can even die. Depending on the extent and duration of the blockage, this damage can be permanent or even fatal. Myocardial infarction or heart attack, is accompanied by chest pain or discomfort often in the center or left side of the chest which lasts for more than a few minutes. This pain often travels into the shoulder, arm, neck or jaw and is usually accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea, sweating and feeling faint.
A myocardial infarction requires immediate medical attention and time is of the essence. Immediate treatment with drugs that dissolve clots and dilate the blood vessels usually accompanies a procedure known as an “angioplasty”, which is a physical procedure that attempts to unblock or widen the narrowed blood vessels. If a patient survives the heart attack, they may undergo “cardiac bypass surgery” which is when the blood vessels supplying the heart are re-routed to avoid the damaged vessel. In some cases, a heart transplant is the only viable option for long-term survival.
A myocardial infarction is not the same as “cardiac arrest”, which is when the heart actually stops beating and requires CPR or defibrillation to restart the contractions. Cardiac arrest can be caused by a heart attack however, especially when the damage to the cardiac muscle is extensive. Heart attacks also differ from the condition known as “heart failure” which is when the heart is unable to pump sufficiently to meet the body’s needs, but enough to keep it alive. Like cardiac arrest, heart failure can also be caused by a heart attack, but can also precede one.
It is very important to be aware of the symptoms of a heart attack and to immediately seek medical attention for yourself or anyone else you suspect may be suffering these symptoms. Learning to recognise the below symptoms may just save your life, or the life of a loved one or stranger.
- Chest pain, possibly spreading to one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Shortness of breath and weakness
- Cold sweat, clamminess, ashen appearance and/or nausea