Surviving a Heart Attack: Timing Is Crucial

IMAGE Is it indigestion or chest pain? Knowing the symptoms of a heart attack can save your life. John H., 46, a physician, thought he had indigestion. He felt discomfort in his abdomen on and off for about a month, took antacid tablets, and went about his life. One day, his wife came home to find him lying on the floor, clutching his chest in pain. She called an ambulance and had him rushed to the emergency room. There, he learned he was having a myocardial infarction (MI), a type of heart attack that causes damage to heart cells. If Dr. H. had waited much longer to get to the hospital, it is quite likely he would have died.Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer heart attacks. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.

The Death of Heart Cells

Most heart attacks are a result of atherosclerosis: deposits of lipids or fatty cells, which build up and cause damage to and narrow the arterial walls. The body responds by creating plaque, which forms a scar inside the artery, causing even more damage. If the plaque ruptures, it releases its contents that can block the flow of blood to the heart. Without blood, the heart does not receive the oxygen it needs, and cells of the heart muscle begin to die.While a heart attack may describe several possible conditions, MI refers strictly to the death of heart cells. The longer the heart muscle goes without blood, the more severe and extensive the damage and the greater the risk of ongoing heart muscle weakness, or even death. MIs can also be caused by drug use, particularly cocaine.

Immediate Treatment Is Essential

A heart attack is a medical emergency and needs immediate care. The first thing you need to do is call for emergency medical services. Your survival chances increase with earlier emergency treatment. Heart damage can often be minimized or averted by immediate treatment.

Why People Delay

There are many reasons why people having heart attacks delay getting medical help. Some are fearful or in denial. Others are put off by complications or costs of the medical system, have trouble reaching their doctors, run into language or cultural barriers, or do not have access to care. But many people simply do not realize that they are having a heart attack. That is because the warning signs vary widely, and the symptoms can be unclear.

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