Acute myocardial infarction, also known as a heart attack, is a life-threatening condition that occurs when blood flow to the heart muscle is abruptly cut off, causing tissue damage.

This is usually the result of a blockage in one or more of the coronary arteries. A blockage can develop due to a buildup of plaque, a substance mostly made of fat, cholesterol, and cellular waste products or due to a sudden blood clot that forms on the blockage.

Call 911 or local emergency services right away if you think that you or someone you know may be having a heart attack.

While the classic symptoms of a heart attack are chest pain and shortness of breath, the symptoms can be quite varied. The most common symptoms of a heart attack include:

It’s important to note that not all people who have heart attacks experience the same symptoms or the same severity of symptoms.

Chest pain is the most commonly reported symptom among both women and men. However, women are a bit more likely than men to have more of the “atypical” symptoms, such as:

In fact, some women who have had a heart attack report that their symptoms felt like the symptoms of the flu.

Your heart is the main organ in your cardiovascular system, which also includes different types of blood vessels. Some of the most important vessels are the arteries. They take oxygen-rich blood to your body and all of your organs.

The coronary arteries take oxygen-rich blood specifically to your heart muscle. When these arteries become blocked or narrowed due to a buildup of plaque, the blood flow to your heart can decrease significantly or stop completely. This can cause a heart attack.

A major trigger for heart problems can be the fat content of food. People who eat a lot of processed and fried foods, as well as some meat and dairy foods that contain unhealthy saturated and trans saturated fats, are at a higher risk for heart disease. Obesity can increase this risk.

According to one study, replacing 2 percent of calories consumed from carbs with trans fat could double the risk of heart disease.

In addition, your blood also contains fat known as triglycerides, which store excess energy from the food that you eat. When the level of triglycerides in your blood is high, you may be more at risk for cardiovascular disease.

If, along with that, you also have a high level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in your blood, your risk may be even higher. This is because LDL cholesterol can stick to the walls of your arteries and produce plaque, a hard substance that blocks blood flow in the arteries.

Reducing your cholesterol and the unhealthy fat in your body typically requires eating a balanced diet that contains few processed foods, and when necessary, taking medications called statins.

Your doctor would be able to recommend the best nutrition plan for you and determine whether you need to take medications.

Additional risks

In addition to your diet, the following factors can also increase your risk of heart problems:

  • High blood pressure. This can damage your arteries and accelerate the buildup of plaque.
  • High blood sugar levels. Having high levels of blood sugar can damage blood vessels and eventually lead to coronary artery disease.
  • Smoking. Smoking may increase your risk for heart attack and lead to other cardiovascular conditions and diseases.
  • Age. The risk of having a heart attack increases with age. Men are at a higher risk of a heart attack after age 45, and women are at a higher risk of a heart attack after age 55.
  • Sex. Not only do men have a significantly higher risk of having a heart attack than women, but they also often have heart attacks earlier in life.
  • Family history. You’re more likely to have a heart attack if you have a family history of early heart disease. Your risk is especially high if you have male family members who developed heart disease before age 55 or if you have female family members who developed heart disease before age 65.
  • Stress. Although the evidence for this is still limited, stress may also be a trigger for acute myocardial infarction. Reducing chronic anxiety or stress can help reduce the risk of a heart attack and other heart problems over time.
  • Physical inactivity. Getting regular exercise can help keep your heart healthy by helping you maintain a moderate weight, as well as reduce your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.
  • Drug use. The use of certain drugs, including cocaine and amphetamines, can narrow the blood vessels, which could increase the risk of heart attack.
  • Preeclampsia. If you have a history of preeclampsia, or high blood pressure during pregnancy, you may be at a higher risk of developing heart problems later in life.

To determine whether you’ve had a heart attack, your doctor will look over the history of your symptoms, as well as your vital signs such as your blood pressure. Your doctor will then complete a physical exam with specific attention to the heart.

Your doctor will also run a number of different tests if they suspect that you’ve had a heart attack. An electrocardiogram (EKG) may be done to measure your heart’s electrical activity.

Blood tests will also be used to check for proteins that are associated with heart damage, such as troponin.

Your doctor may also perform an angiogram with coronary catheterization to look for areas of blockage in your arteries.

Heart attacks require immediate treatment, so most treatments begin in the emergency room. Treatment may include taking medications to resolve blood clots, reduce pain, or slow down your heart rate.

The doctor may also send you to undergo a minimally invasive procedure called percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), formerly referred to as an angioplasty with a stent. This procedure is used to unblock the arteries that supply blood to the heart.

Only about 36 percent of hospitals in the United States are equipped to perform this procedure. If your hospital is unable to perform an angioplasty, they may transfer you to another hospital that can.

During the procedure, your surgeon will insert a long, thin tube called a catheter through your artery to reach the blockage. They will then inflate a small balloon attached to the catheter in order to reopen the artery, allowing blood flow to resume.

Your surgeon may also place a small, mesh tube called a stent at the site of the blockage. The stent can prevent the artery from closing again.

Your doctor may also want to perform a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG). In this procedure, your surgeon will restore blood flow by rerouting your veins and arteries so the blood can move around the blockage.

A CABG is sometimes done immediately after a heart attack. In most cases, however, it’s performed several days after the incident so your heart has time to heal.

Another procedure your doctor may want you to undergo is a bypass surgery, which is used to form new passages for blood to flow to the heart.

A number of different medications can also be used to treat a heart attack:

  • Blood thinners, such as aspirin, are often used to break up blood clots and improve blood flow through narrowed arteries.
  • Thrombolytics are often used to dissolve clots.
  • Antiplatelet drugs, such as clopidogrel, can be used to prevent new clots from forming and existing clots from growing.
  • Nitroglycerin can be used to widen your blood vessels.
  • Beta-blockers lower your blood pressure and relax your heart muscle. This can help limit the severity of damage to your heart.
  • ACE inhibitors can also be used to lower blood pressure and decrease stress on the heart.
  • Pain relievers may be used to reduce any discomfort you may feel.
  • Diuretics can help decrease fluid buildup to ease the workload of the heart.

Your chances of recovering from a heart attack depend on how much damage there is to your heart and how quickly you receive emergency care. The sooner you receive treatment, the more likely you are to survive.

Keep in mind that recovery is a long process and may take several weeks or months after leaving the hospital. After having a heart attack, you may also be at a higher risk of having other heart problems in the future.

For example, if there’s substantial damage to your heart muscle, your heart may be unable to pump an adequate amount of blood throughout your body. This can lead to heart failure. Heart damage also increases your risk of valve problems and developing an abnormal heart rhythm or arrhythmia.

Your risk of having another heart attack will be higher as well. In fact, it’s estimated that one in five people who have had a heart attack will be readmitted to the hospital for a second heart attack within five years.

Many people also experience chest pain after having a heart attack, especially after eating a large meal or engaging in physical activity. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you notice any chest pain. They can recommend certain medications or exercises to help relieve symptoms.

As part of your treatment plan, you may be required to take medications or undergo a cardiac rehabilitation program. This type of program can help you slowly regain your strength, teach you about healthy lifestyle changes, and guide you through treatment.

Follow-up

There are several ways to prevent another heart attack and promote healing, including working with your doctor to make changes to your diet and lifestyle.

It’s also important to speak with your doctor about your concerns during recovery. Because many people who’ve had heart attacks often experience anxiety and depression, it may be beneficial to join a support group or to speak with a counselor about what you’re going through.

Most people are able to resume their normal activities after a heart attack. However, you’ll need to ease back into any intense physical activity. Your doctor will help you develop a specific plan for recovery.

There are many steps you can take to prevent a heart attack, even if you’ve had one before.

One way to lower your risk is to eat a heart-healthy diet. This diet should largely consist of:

You should also try to reduce the following in your diet:

  • sugar
  • processed foods

This is especially important for people with diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

Exercising several times a week will also improve your cardiovascular health. If you’ve had a heart attack recently, you should speak with your doctor before starting a new exercise plan.

It’s also important to stop smoking if you smoke. Quitting smoking will significantly lower your risk of a heart attack and improve both your heart and lung health. You should also avoid being around secondhand smoke.

Acute myocardial infarction, or heart attack, is a serious condition that occurs when blood flow to the heart is cut off, which requires immediate medical treatment.

Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent complications associated with this condition and minimize the long-term effects on health.

Not only can making changes to your diet and lifestyle promote recovery after a heart attack, but it can also prevent heart attacks from occurring again in the future.