Heart Attack

Treating Cardiovascular Diseases in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois

Your heart is a strong muscular pump. Like the other muscles in your body, it needs a continuous supply of blood and oxygen to function properly. The heart muscle receives its blood supply from the coronary arteries, a network of vessels that surround the heart.

How do heart attacks happen?

A heart attack occurs when one or more coronary arteries suddenly become blocked, preventing blood and oxygen from reaching part of the heart. Unless blood flow is quickly restored, the part of the heart deprived of blood can die or suffer permanent damage.

Another name for heart attack is myocardial infarction (MI), which means death of heart muscle tissue from a lack of blood.

Every year more than a million men and women in the US have a heart attack and about half of them die. The good news is that more people are learning to recognize the symptoms of heart attacksand call 911 within 5 minutes of their onset.

As more people receive early intervention, more will be able to survive heart attacks and avoid significant heart damage.

Heart Attack Signs and Symptoms

Many people assume sudden, crushing chest pain is the main symptom of a heart attack. While men’s heart attacks may occur this way, a common sign of a heart attackin women is mild chest pain or discomfort.

That’s why it’s important to know of all the symptoms of heart attacks. It’s also important to note the onset of your symptoms. Some medications and treatments can only be administered within 3 hours after a heart attack begins.

Here are some signs that indicate a heart attack may be occurring:

  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Chest discomfort (angina) that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, indigestion or pain that is not relieved by rest or nitroglycerin
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Extreme weakness or fatigue
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness 
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats  
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort. May also occur before chest discomfort

If you or someone you’re with may be having a heart attack, call 911 or your local emergency number right away. Even if you are uncertain (which is often the case), do not delay. Waiting a couple hours may limit your treatment options and increase the amount of damage to your heart.

Do not drive yourself to the hospital. Your risk for sudden death is greatest in the early hours of a heart attack.

What Are Silent Heart Attack Symptoms?

Some people may experience a silent heart attack, which has no noticeable symptom. Others may have such mild chest discomfort that they overlook relatedsymptoms of heart attacks, such as shortness of breath, fatigue or lightheadedness.

A silent heart attack can occur among all patients, though it is more common among the elderly, people with diabetes and women. Evidence of a silent heart attack is typically discovered during a routine doctor exam.

Some people may experience pre-heart attack symptoms, which generally appear several months to a week before an actual heart attack. Common pre-heart attack symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Chest pain
  • Indigestion
  • Pain in a shoulder blade or upper back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Unusual fatigue

If you experience pre-heart attack signs and symptoms, seek immediate medical help. Your doctor may prescribe treatment that can potentially prevent a heart attack from occurring.

What Causes Heart Attacks?

Heart attacks usually result from coronary artery disease (CAD), a condition that occurs when plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries, causing them to narrow and harden.

Plaque is a fatty substance that is hard on the outside and soft and mushy on the inside. Sometimes the hard surface cracks or tears, exposing the soft, fatty substance underneath. When this happens, blood clots form around the plaque, blocking blood flow.

When a coronary artery is blocked, part or all of the heart muscle becomes cut off from its oxygen supply. The longer that artery stays blocked, the greater the chance for permanent heart damage.

A less common cause of heart attack is a spasm, or severe tightening, of a coronary artery, which cuts off blood flow the artery. Spasms can occur in arteries that aren’t affected by coronary artery disease.

Risks for Heart Attacks

As with most types of heart disease, certain factors can increase your heart attack risk. Unavoidable risks include:

  • Growing older
  • Having a family history of heart disease
  • Race (risk is higher in African Americans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, Native Hawaiians and some Asian Americans)

By practicing a healthy lifestyle and taking medication, you can avoid or manage the following risks:

  • Being obese or overweight
  • Cocaine Abuse
  • Diabetes
  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking
  • Stress

Diagnosing Heart Attacks

After calling 911 or your local emergency number, paramedics can begin their diagnosis—and treatment—right away. They will ask you to describe your heart attack signs and symptomsand when you first began to notice them. They may advise you to take an aspirin. Once they arrive, they are likely to listen to your heart with a stethoscope and perform the following tests:

  • Blood tests
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)

After you arrive at the hospital and your condition is stabilized, your medical team will examine the structure and function of your heart by performing any of the following tests:

  • Chest X-ray 
  • Coronary angiography
  • Echocardiogram (echo) 
  • Electron-beam computed tomography (EBCT)
  • Nuclear scanning
  • Stress test

Treating Heart Attacks

Quick treatment is essential to minimizing heart damage. Along with oxygen, treatment typically includes various medications and procedures.

Medications may include:

  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Aspirin and other antiplatelet agents
  • Beta-blocking and/or ACE inhibitor medications
  • Cholesterol-lowering medications
  • Clot-dissolving agents
  • Nitrate medications
  • Pain-relief medications

When necessary, one or more of the following procedures may be performed:

  • Angioplasty
  • Atherectomy (link tbd)
  • Coronary artery bypass surgery
  • Implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICDs)
  • Stenting

After your heart attack, your doctor will recommend a personalized rehabilitation program to help you increase your exercise level and practice a heart-healthy lifestyle. You may also be checked and treated for related conditions, such as depression.

Leading Midwest Cardiology Program

Aurorais known for having one of the best cardiology programs in the United States. Our multidisciplinary care includes access to outstanding doctors and services for preventing, diagnosing and treating heart attacks. We also offer a full-service rehab program to ensure your optimal recovery.

Aurora performs more than 3,000 coronary interventions a year, making us one of the top five centers in the country. Our doctors are conveniently located throughout eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. Find a doctor or cardiologist near you. To get a second opinion or if you need assistance finding a provider, please call 888-649-6892.