What happens before, during, and after a heart attack
While most people are familiar with the general symptoms of a heart attack – chest pain, shortness of breath, and fatigue, among others – the dynamics of the event aren’t quite so well-known.
Heart attacks cause permanent damage to the heart’s muscle fibers. “Infarction” is when the blood supply to bodily tissues is cut off, causing those cells to die. The medical term for a heart attack is a myocardial infarction (MI). “Myo” refers to muscle.
While a myocardial infarction can lead to cardiac arrest (when the heart stops beating) or heart failure (when the heart isn’t strong enough to support the body), the three conditions are not synonymous.
What exactly is a heart attack?
If you answered with “a blockage to the heart’s arteries, such as a build-up of plaque” you’re partially correct. The most common type of heart attack is just that; however, there’s another variety.
Spasms in the coronary arteries – although uncommon – can restrict blood flow enough to result in myocardial infarction. Severe coronary spasms can be caused by stress, drugs, allergic reactions, smoking, or pharmaceutical interactions with certain health conditions.
What happens during a heart attack
Regardless of the cause, the results of a myocardial infarction, in general, are the same.
Our hearts deliver themselves oxygen and nutrients via an encompassing network of coronary arteries. When one of these arteries becomes clogged or spasms enough to restrict blood flow, it causes a myocardial infarction.
During an MI, nerve signals to the brain can become disrupted, causing what’s known as “referred pain.” The most frequently reported referred pain associated with heart attacks is felt in the left arm.
Angina – pain or discomfort caused by a lack of oxygen – is another symptom to be aware of. When the heart isn’t pumping enough blood to keep muscles functioning properly, muscles in the neck, jaw, and shoulders can become painful.
Other heart attack symptoms include:
- Tightness and/or pressure in the chest
- Cold sweats
- Shortness of breath
- Sense of impending doom
- Trouble sleeping
- Nausea or abdominal discomfort
- Acid indigestion-like symptoms
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
If you or someone you’re in the presence of experiences these symptoms, get help immediately.
The road to recovery
Treatments and recovery periods vary based on the patient and any specifics of the attack. For those who make it to a hospital and get treatment, the first two days after a heart attack are the most dangerous. Most patients require between three and five days of care in a CCU (coronary care unit).
After an MI, the heart may not be as efficient as it used to be, thereby causing poor circulation and fatigue. Doctors require patients to rest and eat lightly in the days after a heart attack to allow the heart and body to begin recovery.
Damage to the heart might also disrupt its electrical control. In such cases, a patient might need to have a pacemaker implanted to help the heart maintain a proper rhythm.
For mild to moderate heart attacks, usually, the heart will settle back into a healthy rhythm within two days. From there, physical activity should be gradually increased to rebuild the heart’s strength. At this point, the risk for a second attack becomes significantly less.
What to do if someone is having a heart attack
How witnesses respond to a heart attack victim is often the difference between life and death. Recognizing the symptoms and calling 911 is a crucial first step, but not always enough, especially if the individual goes into the sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).
To learn more about helping a heart attack victim, we encourage you to read our blog, “Heart Attack Safety Begins With knowing What to Do.”