What you need to know about heart attacks

Every three minutes in the UK someone is admitted to a hospital with a heart attack. That equates to 20,000 hospital visits every year due to heart attacks.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack, or “myocardial infarction” to give its medical name, is usually caused by a blockage in one of the coronary arteries or their branches.  When there is a blockage, oxygen which is carried in the blood, cannot reach the heart muscle. This lack of oxygen causes damage to the heart.

These blockages occur due to Coronary Heart Disease (CHD).  In CHD the arteries which carry blood to the heart, gradually become narrower due to the build up fatty deposits. This process is known as atherosclerosis.  If a piece of this fatty substance, or “atheroma” breaks off a clot is formed, and this causes the coronary artery to become blocked.

There are other less common causes of heart attacks, such as a condition known as Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD), the use of cocaine, or from complications after heart surgery.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

Symptoms will vary from person to person, and not everyone will experience them all. The most common symptoms are:

  • chest pain – can be tightness, a heavy pressure on your chest or a burning sensation
  • pain which travels to the jaw, arms or stomach
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • feeling sick or vomiting
  • feeling faint or lightheaded

For some people, the pain will be extremely bad, for others they may only feel mild discomfort similar to indigestion.

If you think you are someone else is having a heart attack call for an ambulance immediately.  

The NHS also recommends to take 300mg of aspirin whilst waiting for the ambulance to arrive (provided you do not have an allergy to aspirin) and it is easily accessible.

Reducing your risk

There are some risk factors (something that increases the likeliness of you getting a disease) which you cannot change. Examples of these are your sex or age. Men are more likely to develop CHD at a younger age and the older you are the greater the risk of developing CHD. Some ethnicities are also at a higher risk than the general population.

Other risk factors include

So, you can reduce your risk of having a heart attack by simply living a healthier lifestyle. Quit smoking, eat well and exercise. For more information on keeping your heart healthy, you can download a leaflet from the British Heart Foundation, by clicking here.

If you are aged 40-74 you can have an NHS health check to see if you are at higher risk of developing certain health conditions including heart disease.

Related articles, Almost half of heart attacks are silent, are you at risk?Common painkillers linked to heart attack risk,  How a Mediterranean Diet could save your life

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Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. An online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice. Article edited for publication by Dr Hannah Arnstein

Images courtesy of pixabay

Sources and Further Reading

About hannaharnstein (13 Articles)
I am a psychiatry trainee working in the North East, but currently on maternity leave. Outside of medicine, other than writing I enjoy all things geek, baking and reading.

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