Heart Attack.

What Happens During a Heart Attack?

The heart muscle requires a constant supply of oxygen-rich blood to nourish it. The coronary arteries provide the heart with this critical blood supply. If you have coronary artery disease, those arteries become narrow and blood cannot flow as well as they should. Fatty matter,calcium, proteins, and inflammatory cells build up within the arteries to form plaques of different sizes. The plaque deposits are hard on the outside and soft and mushy on the inside.

When the plaque is hard, the outer shell cracks (plaque rupture), platelets (disc-shaped particles in the blood that aid clotting) come to the area, and blood clots form around the plaque. If a blood clot totally blocks the artery, the heart muscle becomes "starved" for oxygen. Within a short time, death of heart muscle cells occurs, causing permanent damage. This is a heart attack.

While it is unusual, a heart attack can also be caused by a spasm of a coronary artery. During a coronary spasm, the coronary arteries restrict or spasm on and off, reducing blood supply to the heart muscle (ischemia). It may occur at rest, and can even occur in people without significant coronary artery disease.

Each coronary artery supplies blood to a region of heart muscle. The amount of damage to the heart muscle depends on the size of the area supplied by the blocked artery and the time between injury and treatment.

Healing of the heart muscle begins soon after a heart attack and takes about eight weeks. Just like a skin wound, the heart's wound heals and a scar will form in the damaged area. But, the new scar tissue does not contract. So, the heart's pumping ability is lessened after a heart attack. The amount of lost pumping ability depends on the size and location of the scar.

What Do I Do if I Have a Heart Attack?

After a heart attack, quick treatment to open the blocked artery is essential to lessen the amount of damage. At the first signs of a heart attack, call for emergency treatment (usually 911). The best time to treat a heart attack is within one to two hours of the first onset of symptoms. Waiting longer increases the damage to your heart and reduces your chance of survival.

Keep in mind that chest discomfort can be described in many ways. It can occur in the chest or in the arms, back, or jaw. If you have symptoms, take notice. These are your heart disease warning signs. Seek medical care immediately.

ECG. The ECG (also known as EKG or electrocardiogram) can tell how much damage has occurred to your heart muscle and where it has occurred. In addition, your heart rate and rhythm can be monitored.

  • Blood tests. Blood may be drawn to measure levels of cardiac enzymes that indicate heart muscle damage. These enzymes are normally found inside the cells of your heart and are needed for their function. When your heart muscle cells are injured, their contents -- including the enzymes -- are released into your bloodstream. By measuring the levels of these enzymes, the doctor can determine the size of the heart attack and approximately when the heart attack started. Troponin levels will also be measured. Troponins are proteins found inside of heart cells that are released when they are damaged by the lack of blood supply to the heart. Detecting troponin in the blood may indicate a heart attack.
  • Echocardiography. Echocardiography is an imaging test that can be used during and after a heart attack to learn how the heart is pumping and what areas are not pumping normally. The "echo" can also tell if any structures of the heart (valves, septum, etc.) have been injured during the heart attack.
  • hat Drugs Are Used to Treat a Heart Attack?

    These medications must be given as soon as possible (within one to two hours from the start of your heart attack) to decrease the amount of heart damage. The longer the delay in starting these drugs, the more damage can occur and the less benefit they can provide.

    Drugs used during a heart attack may include:

    • Aspirin to prevent blood clotting that may worsen the heart attack
    • Other antiplatelets, such as Brilinta, Effient, or Plavix, to prevent blood clotting
    • Thrombolytic therapy ("clot busters") to dissolve any blood clots in the heart's arteries
    • Any combination of the above