A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to a portion of the heart muscle is severely reduced or stopped. This happens when one of the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle is blocked by an obstruction. This blockage can be due to a condition called atherosclerosis (a build up of fatty like substance along the wall of the artery), a blood clot or a coronary vessel spasm along with a total obstruction.
If the blood supply to a portion of the heart stops, that area of the heart will no longer receive the oxygen or nutrients needed to carry out its function and will die. If it is a very small part of the heart involved, it will be able to work without it. If a large portion is damaged, irreversible damage will happen which can lead to death.
Damage to the heart muscle may be so severe that it may cause abnormal heart rhythm, called arrhythmias. Most people who are of a myocardial infraction or a heart attack do so within a few hours due to a type of arrhythmia
The heart attack victim will complain of pressure, discomfort or a squeezing sensation in the centre of the chest. There may be pain radiating to the arms or the neck. There may also be shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and or indigestion. The pain that occurs is the result of heart tissue ischemia (decreased blood supply). The area that is not receiving enough blood is literally crying out for help. When a person complains of any of the symptoms mentioned, they should be transported to the nearest hospital. The diagnosis of an M.I. is made for the patient’s history, from special tests on E.C.G. and measurement of certain enzymes released into the bloodstream from damaged heart muscle.
Once an M.I. has occurred and a portion of the heart muscle has died, something has to be done to prevent a piece of the obstruction from breaking off and blocking another artery somewhere else in the body. There are four main techniques to prevent this. Drugs may be given to breakdown a blood clot. The obstruction can be cleared by pushing the plaque towards the wall of the artery by inflating a balloon inside the artery (balloon angioplasty). The obstruction can be loosened up by brushing it and suctioning it out of the artery, this is called atheroectomy. The last technique is to clear the plaque out by using one of the methods mentioned and then add a device, called a stent, that will remain in the artery and hold it open.
These techniques are only temporary, because they do not fix the problem that caused the heart attack, they only slow down the process. These techniques must always be accompanied by risk factor modifications. There are many risk factors that contribute to heart attacks. Some risk factors can be modified or changed, while others can not.
Risk factors that are non-modifiable (or can not be changed):
Family History: If your parents, grandparents, or other close relatives have suffered heart attacks in the past – this increases your chances of having a heart attack.
Male: Males are more likely to have heart attacks a younger age than females. However, once women reach menopause, their chances of having a heart attack equal that of men.
Age: As we get older, our risk of having a heart attack grows.
Risk factors that are modifiable (or can be changed):
Cigarette Smoking: Nicotine in cigarettes cause blood vessels to narrow. This can increase the chances of having a heart attack.
Diet: A diet high in fat and cholesterol can add pounds, but can also add to atherosclerosis – or fatty build up on artery walls. Decrease fat intake and increase your fibre.
High Blood Pressure: Hypertension can lead to blood vessel damage, because the heart has to work harder to pump blood through narrow or hardened vessels affected with atherosclerosis. This blood vessel damage can lead to blood clots.
Limited Physical Activity: Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of a heart attack.
Obesity: Can result from limited physical activity and a diet high in fat. Keep your weight under control.
Stress: Almost everyone deals with stress everyday, whether it is in school, the workplace, or at home. The trick is to learn how to deal with it. Regular physical activity is a great way to relieve stress. Other ways include; relaxation techniques, a warm bath, and soothing music. Find a method that works and stick with it.
Each year in Canada, about 53 000 people are hospitalized with a heart attack and about 26 000 die. Anyone who has suffered a heart attack has increased risk of suffering another one in the following few years. The chances of surviving for many years can be improved by taking action to reduce the risk factors mentioned before.