A heart attack occurs when a sudden blockage occurs in a coronary artery (an artery that supplies blood to the heart), cutting the heart off from blood flow and causing damage. Though the total blockage is sudden, it is often the result of years of heart disease that created a buildup of fat and cholesterol in the arteries. Currently, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.
Doctors should understand the risk factors and symptoms of heart disease to help prevent heart attacks and should know the early warning signs of heart attacks to give patients the best chance of survival and recovery.
What Causes a Heart Attack?
A heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI), is caused by atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque in the arteries. Plaque is the term for fatty deposits that collect in the arteries.
Plaque buildup causes the artery passageway to narrow, restricting blood flow. This buildup can block the artery, or the plaque might rupture causing blood clots to form in the narrowed arteries.
In uncommon instances, a heart attack can be caused by a spasm, or sudden tightening, of a coronary artery. This can occur without plaque buildup in the arteries.
Heart disease is most often the result of lifestyle factors like smoking, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Obesity is a leading factor of heart disease. Doctors should know the risk factors of heart disease and should help patients manage symptoms to prevent serious health complications like heart attacks.
What Happens During a Heart Attack?
During a heart attack, part of the heart muscle is cut off from blood supply, leaving it without nutrients and oxygen. The affected part of the muscle suffers damage as healthy tissue begins to die. Scar tissue may eventually form around the injured tissue, and the scar tissue many not function, as well as the healthy tissue, did.
Heart attacks are classified as either STEMI or NSTEMI, defined as a (non) ST-segment-elevation myocardial infarction. If part of the heart was completely cut off from blood supply the heart attack is characterized as STEMI, if part of the heart experiences a reduced blood supply it is characterized as NSTEMI.
Heart Attack Facts and Statistics
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Heart Foundation:
- About 610,000 people die of heart disease every year in the United States, making 1 out of every 4 deaths attributable to heart disease
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women, but there are higher rates of heart disease related death in men than in women
- Heart disease kills more people than all types of cancer combined
- Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the most common type of heart disease, killing over 370,000 people every year in the United States
- About 735,000 people have a heart attack each year in the United States
- Almost half of all cardiac related deaths happen outside the hospital
Heart Attack Risk Factors
Risk factors for a heart attack are divided between inherited factors and lifestyle factors. Inherited risk factors include:
- Gender—men typically have a higher risk of heart disease
- Age—the average age of a first heart attack is about 66, though they can occur earlier. The risk of heart attack increases with age
- Family history of heart disease or other inherited heart disease-related complications, like diabetes or metabolic syndrome
Risk factors can also be part of lifestyle changes. These risk factors can be controlled and managed with the help of your doctor. Lifestyle risk factors include:
- Smoking tobacco
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Obesity or being overweight
- Lack of physical activity
- Diabetes—though some people are genetically disposed to diabetes, the symptoms should be manageable with proper care
- Poor diet high in unhealthy fats, sugars and processed foods and low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Alcohol abuse or heavy alcohol intake
- Unmanaged stress
- Sleep apnea
Early Warning Signs of a Heart Attack
Early warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack vary for each person and are usually different for men and women. Warning signs and symptoms include:
- Chest pain or discomfort (like heavy pressure) in the center or left side of the chest
- Other pains in the upper part of the body
- Shortness of breath
- Unusual fatigue
- Sudden dizziness
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
Knowing these warning signs and symptoms can help patients get quicker medical care. Some heart attack patients may not experience any symptoms, and some may experience symptoms days or weeks in advance of the heart attack.
Diagnosing Heart Attack
To diagnose a heart attack doctors will usually perform some of the following tests:
- Listen to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope to detect heart murmurs or other unusual sounds like crackling or popping in the lungs
- Testing for an unusual pulse rate
- An electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) to record the heart's electrical activity and detect abnormalities
- Blood tests to check for heart damage—specific enzymes can leak from the heart into the blood during a heart attack
- Chest x-ray to check the blood vessels and lungs
- Coronary catheterization or angiogram to detect blockages in the arteries
Treating Heart Attack
Heart attack treatments will depend on the course of the heart attack. Factors that will change treatment plants include:
- Type of blockage in the arteries
- How soon medical help was received
- Whether the heart was supplied with blood from another source—sometimes the body widens another vein to help with blood supply, called a collateral blood source
Treatment options include:
- Aspirin—you may be instructed to take aspirin before arriving at the hospital to help reduce blood clotting
- Clot-busters (thrombolytics)—administered by medical professionals, these are types of drugs that will dissolve blood clots
- Beta blockers to decrease blood pressure
- Blood thinning medications like antiplatelet agents to keep platelets from sticking together and clotting
- Nitroglycerin to help with chest pain and aid in opening blood vessels
If the heart attack was severe or if a blockage cannot dissolve with medication alone, doctors may need to try surgical options like stenting or bypass surgery. Stenting is a procedure to insert a metal mesh stent to keep an artery open. Bypass surgery is used to bypass a blockage and create new routes for arteries.
Heart Attack Malpractice Lawsuits In Maryland
Patients may suffer from malpractice in heart attack care if doctors fail to recognize symptoms, order diagnostic tests like EKGs or blood tests, fail to provide necessary emergency treatment, or fail to understand the patient's medical history. Chest pains should never be taken lightly, and doctors must be a specific standard of care in diagnosing and treating the cause of chest pain. When doctors fail to provide this standard of care, patients may suffer temporary or permanent disability.
If you or a loved one has suffered from negligent treatment or diagnosis of a heart attack, call our offices today for a free consultation. You may be eligible for compensation for:
- Medical bills
- Lost wages
- Emotional and physical suffering
- Other long-term medical expenses
The experienced attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian are dedicated to helping you understand your legal rights and to getting you the results you deserve.