What happens leading up to and during a heart attack.
Your heart is an amazing muscle, beating around 100,000 times a day and pumping about 2,000 gallons of blood to the rest of your body. And like any other muscle, it requires a constant flow of oxygen-rich blood to function. Your coronary arteries supply the heart with blood, and a heart attack is what happens when one of these arteries’ blood flow gets interrupted. “Myocardial infarction” is the medical term:
- Myo meaning muscle in Latin
- Cardial referring to the Latin word for heart
- And infarction, a medical term that refers to tissue death as the result of lack of blood flow
If you’ve ever had your foot or arm “fall asleep,” you have a sense of what’s going on when the heart can’t get the blood it needs.
How and when blockages form
It can take a number of years for a blockage large enough to cause a heart attack to develop. Usually it’s the result of plaque build-up on an artery wall, a condition known as atherosclerosis. Plaque is a sticky substance made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood.
In the moments leading up to most heart attacks, the body is responding to a burst plaque within one of the heart’s arteries. When a plaque bursts, it can trigger blood clot formation. The normally helpful clotting action of cells called platelets then block blood flow to the heart, causing its tissue to die – resulting in a myocardial infarction, or heart attack.
Symptoms of a heart attack
Every heart attack is unique in that each person may experience different symptoms. Sometimes there’s a combination of many symptoms, and other times a person may only have one or two. Others still may not actually feel anything except “something’s just not right.” Yet, it’s important to know some of the common warning signs.
Common warning signs of a heart attack for everyone include:
- Chest tightness: discomfort in the center, right or left side of the chest
- Nausea: feeling sick to the stomach
- Shortness of Breath: difficult or labored breathing with or without chest pain
- Lightheadedness: dizziness or feeling like you are about to pass out
- Pain in the Arms, Back, Neck or Jaw: either gradual (pain that comes and goes) or sudden
- Paleness: Loss of color on the face and skin
- Sweating: breaking out in perspiration with cold, clammy skin
- Extreme fatigue: severe, unexplained tiredness
And just as heart attack symptoms can vary from person to person, their onset is different as well – some may feel the effects suddenly, while other symptoms could come on gradually, go away and then return
= more common in women
In the event of a suspected heart attack, immediately call 9-1-1 and chew or crush and swallow aspirin as directed by a doctor. This simple step can reduce the risk of death from heart attack by 23% when taken during a suspected heart attack, and for 30 days thereafter.
Even if you’re not sure whether it’s a heart attack or not, it’s much better to be safe and get help.
Heart attack survival is a long-term goal.
In the days and weeks following a heart attack, life for survivors and their families can be a challenging time. Aside from the physical toll the process takes, there’s an emotional impact as well. For the survivor, it’s about balancing a need to feel support from the ones they love and the struggle to not feel like a burden to them. For their loved ones, it is often about finding the right balance of supporting the healing process at the survivor’s own pace and motivating them toward making healthier lifestyle choices without pushing too hard.
And while it can be inspiring to know that many survive a heart attack and go on to live several years beyond their heart event, it’s also important to know that statistically, 20% of heart attack survivors over 45 will have another one within 5 years. Moreover, other risk factors like having high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes could mean it’s even more likely for a survivor to have another heart attack.
That’s why it helps to have a longer-term perspective after a heart attack. Going from “heart attack victim” to “heart attack survivor” takes work, and it starts from the first day after the attack.
So how can you stay motivated and beat the odds?
Get into recovery mode.
For many, surviving a heart attack is powerful motivation for never having another. And as challenging as it can be, heart attack survivors who make a commitment to heart-healthy choices as part of their recovery have reason to hope: 70% of the major risk factors for heart attack can be controlled through lifestyle choices.
The first few days after a heart attack are an opportunity to set the tone for the next phase in a survivor’s life. It’s a chance to:
- Learn more about heart health: study this list of terms to strengthen knowledge and prepare yourself for meaningful conversations with health care providers.
- Talk to your doctor: arm yourself with this list of questions and don’t be afraid to add to it. Getting answers to your questions can help empower your recovery.
- Prepare for cardiac rehab: if your doctor recommends it, it might help to learn what to expect from cardiac rehab and hit the ground running, so to speak.
- Start think about lifestyle changes you can make: living heart-healthy after a heart attack means different steps for each person, so it helps to begin to decide what it means to you.
- Establish your support system: you don’t have to go it alone. There are many options for getting the support you need – and you may even be just the friend someone else needs, too!
- Don’t ignore your mental and emotional health: it is very common – and nothing to be ashamed of – to experience depression after a heart attack. Learn the signs and get help right away if you need it.
The journey to becoming a heart attack survivor is different for each person, and while it can present what seem like insurmountable challenges, many long-term survivors note that they got where they are one step at a time.