If you’ve recently had a heart attack, you probably have a lot of questions for your cardiologist. For starters, you may wonder what exactly caused the attack. And you likely want to know a bit more about your treatment options to keep your heart healthy and prevent your future risk of a heart attack or other complication.

Seeing a cardiologist for the first time to talk about these things can be an overwhelming experience, but it’s important to learn more about your condition and get on the right treatment. Take a copy of this guide to get the conversation started with your cardiologist at your first appointment.

1. Why did I have a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when blood that supplies oxygen and nutrients to your heart muscle is blocked. There are different reasons why blockage occurs. A common cause is the buildup of cholesterol and fatty substances, known as plaque. As the plaque grows, it may eventually burst and spill into your bloodstream. When this happens, blood can no longer flow freely through the arteries supplying the heart muscle, and parts of the heart muscle become damaged, causing a heart attack.

But everyone’s case is different. You’ll have to confirm with your doctor the cause of your heart attack so that you can get started on the appropriate treatment plan.

2. What is my risk of having another heart attack?

If you’ve had a heart attack, you’re at a greater risk of having one in the future. This is especially true if you don’t make the necessary lifestyle changes and start on a treatment plan as soon as possible. Medication, combined with a heart-healthy lifestyle, can significantly decrease your risk of having another heart attack.

Your cardiologist will consider things like your blood work, imaging test results, and lifestyle habits to determine your risk and figure out which medication will work best for you. They’ll also factor in whether your heart attack was due to complete or partial blockage.

3. What medications do I need to take, and for how long?

Once you start treatment after a heart attack, you’re on treatment for life. Yet your dosage or type of drug may be adjusted as your condition improves. This is typically the case with high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Treatment options include:

  • beta-blockers
  • blood thinners (anticoagulants)
  • calcium channel blockers
  • cholesterol-lowering drugs
  • vasodilators

Ask your cardiologist what treatment is best for you. Chances are, you may need to take a combination of drugs.

4. Can I resume my normal activities?

You need plenty of rest following a heart attack, but you might be curious to know when you can get back to your normal life. At your appointment, ask your cardiologist for a timeline of when it’s safe to go back to your normal activities. This includes work, everyday tasks, and leisure activities.

Your cardiologist will probably recommend that you start moving more throughout the day, with long periods of rest in between. They’ll also advise you to stop the activity immediately if you experience any feelings of fatigue or weakness.

5. What type of diet should I follow?

When it comes to your heart health, eating a nutritious diet is just as important for your treatment plan as medication. Your cardiologist will recommend you follow a heart-healthy diet consisting of vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and healthy fats.

This will help reduce your chances of experiencing another heart attack by reducing or preventing the buildup of plaque in your arteries. If you’re looking for a meal plan to follow, consider the Mediterranean diet.

If you have any special dietary restrictions, your doctor can help you create a heart-healthy diet plan that works for you.

6. Will I need to have surgery?

Whether or not you need surgery depends on the specific kind of blockage. Following a heart attack, your doctor may inject a clot-dissolving substance. This procedure, called thrombolysis, is done at the hospital. Once your condition has stabilized, your surgeon will talk to you about long-term solutions to keep your arteries open.

A coronary angioplasty may be done to help open a blocked artery detected on imaging tests. During this procedure, the surgeon inserts a catheter into an artery that connects to the blocked artery in your heart. This is usually located in your wrist or the groin area. The catheter has a balloon-like device attached to its tube, which helps open up the artery when inflated.

Once this is done, your surgeon may then insert a metal-mesh device called a stent. This helps to keep the artery open over the long-term so that your blood can flow more freely throughout the heart, thereby preventing future heart attacks. An angioplasty may also be done via lasers, using high-beams of light to break through blockages in the arteries.

Another possible surgery is called a coronary artery bypass. During bypass surgery, your doctor changes the positioning of different arteries and veins in the heart so that blood can flow to these and bypass the blocked arteries. Sometimes a bypass is done to prevent heart attacks. But if you’ve already had a heart attack, your doctor may recommend an emergency bypass procedure within three to seven days, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Even if your doctor does recommend surgery, you’ll still need to follow other heart-healthy steps, such as taking your medications and eating a healthy diet. A heart transplant or valve replacement is used as a last resort if your heart is found to be extremely diseased or damaged.

7. Do I have to quit my job?

With having to manage the cost of care following your heart attack, you may wonder when you can get back to your job. According to the American Heart Association, your cardiologist may recommend that you take anywhere from two weeks to three months off of work. It will depend on the severity of your heart attack and whether you need to have any surgery.

Your cardiologist will likely work with you to assess how your current job is affecting your stress levels and if it’s contributing to your heart troubles. You may need to find ways to reduce your workload, like delegating tasks or stepping down from your role. You can also commit to practicing more self-care during the work week to reduce your stress levels.

8. What should I do if I think I’m having another heart attack?

Just like with any other medical emergency, the sooner you’re able to get to an emergency care center and get help, the better your chances are at a speedy recovery. This is why it’s imperative to know all the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. Heart attack symptoms can vary. And some heart attacks don’t present any significant symptoms at all.

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • chest pain, tightness, or a squeezing sensation
  • arm pressure or pain (especially on the left side, where your heart is)
  • pain that spreads from the chest area to your neck or jaw, or down to your abdomen
  • sudden dizziness
  • shortness of breath
  • breaking out into a cold sweat
  • nausea
  • sudden fatigue

9. What are the possible complications?

Complications can happen if a condition is left untreated or isn’t being treated effectively. Other things can cause complications too.

Having a heart attack not only puts you at risk of future episodes and increases your risk of heart failure. Other possible complications include arrhythmia and cardiac arrest, both of which can be fatal.

Ask your cardiologist about any complications you need to watch for based on your condition. Any changes in your heart beat should be addressed immediately for possible heart rhythm abnormalities.

10. What steps can I take to improve my quality of life?

After experiencing a traumatic event like a heart attack, it’s understandable to want to get well as soon as possible so you can continue doing the things you love to do.

The best way to improve your quality of life after a heart attack is to follow your cardiologist’s treatment plan. While it might take several weeks or more to recover fully, you may begin to feel better with medication and lifestyle adjustments.

Leading an overall healthy lifestyle and reducing your stress levels can do wonders for your heart health and mental well-being. Cardiac rehabilitation, a type of counseling and educational tool, can also help.

Takeaway

If you’ve recently experienced a heart attack, be sure to address these topics and anything else of concern with your cardiologist. They’ll work with you to figure out which treatment plan works best for the specific variables of your condition, and they can let you know more about your risk of a future episode. While a heart attack can be a sudden event, recovering from one will take some time.