Heart Attack Treatment

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What is a heart attack?

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A heart attack (also known as a myocardial infarction or MI) is the death of heart muscle from the sudden blockage by a blood clot in a coronary artery that supplies blood to the heart. Blockage of a coronary artery deprives the heart muscle of blood and oxygen, causing injury to the heart muscle. Injury to the heart muscle causes chest pain and pressure. If blood flow is not restored within 20 to 40 minutes, irreversible death of the heart muscle will begin to occur. Muscle continues to die for 6 to 8 hours at which time the heart attack usually is "complete." The dead heart muscle is replaced by scar tissue.

Approximately one million Americans suffer a heart attack each year. Four hundred thousand of them die as a result of their heart attack.

Click here to view interactive photos of hearts that have suffered a heart attack.

How is a heart attack treated?

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Treatment of heart attacks includes:

  • Antiplatelet medications to prevent formation of blood clots in the arteries
  • Anticoagulant medications to prevent growth of blood clots in the arteries
  • Coronary angiography with either percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA) with or without stenting to open blocked coronary arteries
  • Clot-dissolving medications to open blocked arteries
  • Supplemental oxygen to increase the supply of oxygen to the heart's muscle
  • Medications to decrease the need for oxygen by the heart's muscle
  • Medications to prevent abnormal heart rhythms
  • Cardiac surgery

The primary goal of treatment is to quickly open the blocked artery and restore blood flow to the heart muscle, a process called reperfusion. Once the artery is open, damage to heart muscle ceases, and pain improves. By minimizing the extent of heart muscle damage, early reperfusion preserves the pumping function of the heart. Optimal benefit is obtained if reperfusion can be established within the first 4 to 6 hours of a heart attack. Delay in establishing reperfusion can result in more widespread damage to heart muscle and a greater reduction in the ability of the heart to pump blood. Patients with hearts that are unable to pump sufficient blood develop heart failure, decreased ability to exercise, and abnormal heart rhythms. Thus, the amount of healthy heart muscle remaining after a heart attack is the most important determinant of the future quality of life and longevity.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/24/2012

Patient Comments

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Heart Attack - Symptoms Question: What were your heart attack symptoms?
Heart Attack - Experience Question: Please describe your experience with a heart attack.
Heart Attack Treatment - Aspirin Question: Do you take aspirin to prevent a first or second heart attack? Please share your experience.
Heart Attack Treatment - Types of Treatment Question: What kinds of treatment, procedures, surgeries, or medications have you received after experiencing a heart attack?
Heart Attack Treatment - Angiography or Angioplasty Question: Please discuss your experience with coronary angiography and PTCA.
Heart Attack Treatment - Coronary Artery Bypass Question: Did you have coronary artery bypass surgery? Please share your story.
Heart Attack Treatment - Preventing a Second Attack Question: If you've had a heart attack, what lifestyle changes have you made to prevent a second heart attack?

Heart Attack Treatment Options

What Are Some of the Treatment Options and Guidelines?

Early treatment can prevent or limit damage to the heart muscle. Acting fast, at the first symptoms of heart attack, can save your life. Medical personnel can begin diagnosis and treatment even before you get to the hospital.

Certain treatments are usually started right away if a heart attack is suspected, even before the diagnosis is confirmed. These include:

  • Oxygen
  • Aspirin to prevent further blood clotting
  • Nitroglycerin, to reduce the workload on the heart and improve blood flow through the coronary arteries
  • Treatment for chest pain

Once the diagnosis of heart attack is confirmed or strongly suspected, treatments to try to restore blood flow to the heart are started as soon as possible. Treatments include drugs such as beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, and anticoagulants, antiplatelet (aspirin and clopidogrel) and medical procedures such as angioplasty, coronary artery bypass grafting.

SOURCE: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.com. How Is a Heart Attack Treated?

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