Heart attack

What is a heart attack?

Atheroma build up in a coronary artery causing a restricted blood flow

Atheroma build up in a coronary artery causing a restricted blood flow.

A heart attack (also known as myocardial infarction or MI) happens when one of your coronary arteries (the blood vessels that take blood to your heart) becomes blocked.

The arteries  become blocked as a result of coronary heart disease or CHD. Coronary heart disease is a condition in which there is a build up of a fatty substance in the coronary arteries. This fatty substance is called plaque or atheroma. As the atheroma
grows, the artery narrows and blood flow is reduced. This
process is known as atherosclerosis.

Sometimes the narrowed section becomes damaged or inflamed and the plaque can tear or break. If this happens, your bloods cells rush to try to repair the damage by forming a blood clot. Usually this heals the damage, but sometimes the blood clot grows too large and it blocks the artery. As a result of this blockage, less blood (and therefore oxygen) reaches the heart muscle, and the part of the heart muscle affected becomes damaged.

What does a heart attack feel like?

The most common sign of a heart attack is chest pain or tightness that doesn't go away. This sensation often starts in the middle of your chest and may travel to your neck, jaw, ears, arms and wrists. It is sometimes described as a ‘heaviness, burning, tightness, constriction or squeezing sensation’ or as a ‘heavy weight or pressure’. For some people chest discomfort can feel similar to indigestion or heartburn.

Other symptoms that may indicate you are having a heart attack include:

  • Pain in the neck, jaw or back and down the left arm or down both arms
  • Feeling or being sick
  • Feeling sweaty and clammy
  • Looking very grey and pale
  • Feeling generally unwell and scared
  • Restlessness or anxiety
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Feeling dizzy

Do not be afraid to call 999 if you have think that you might be having a heart attack.

What causes coronary heart disease (CHD)?

Everybody is at some risk of developing atheroma. However, there are some factors have been shown to increase your risk of developing atherosclerosis. These are called cardiovascular risk factors.

Some of these risk factors cannot be changed. These include:

  • A strong family history of CHD or stroke that occurred:
    In your father or brother aged below 55 or
    In your mother or sister aged below 65
  • Your age (risk increases with age)
  • Your gender (men are more at risk than women)
  • Your ethnic group: certain ethnic groups, such as British Asians, have a higher risk of heart disease and stroke

There are some medical risk factors that, with the help of healthcare professionals, can be identified and managed to
reduce your risk of coronary heart disease. These include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High levels of cholesterol in your blood
  • Diabetes

Other risk factors are to do with lifestyle. With the right help and support, you can make changes to reduce your risk of
coronary heart disease. Modifiable risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Being physically inactive
  • Being overweight
  • Poor diet
  • Drinking more alcohol than the recommended amount
  • Stress

The more risks you have, the more your risk of developing coronary heart disease; the risks don't just add, they multiply.

The good news is though, that it is never too late to make healthy lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of another heart attack.

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