What is a heart attack?

19 June 2018

Interview with

Adam Murphy & Marika Ottman, The Naked Scientists

What is a heart attack? Marika Ottman and Adam Murphy throw some quick fire facts our way... 

Marika - Is your chest a bit tight? Feeling short of breath? Sweaty and nauseated? Possibly a bit lightheaded? Maybe you’ve noticed an odd pain crawling down your arm and up your neck? If so, you might be having a heart attack.

Adam - Heart attacks get a pretty bad press… and with good reason. According to the British Heart Foundation 180 people a day in the UK will die of a heart attack.

Marika - Heart attacks happen when one of the blood vessels supplying the heart becomes blocked a blood clot called a “coronary thrombus.”

Adam - This cuts off the flow of oxygen and sugars to the affected part of the heart muscle causing it to run out of energy and the muscle cells begin to die.

Marika - When this occurs, heart attack victims experience a feeling of being crushed or squeezed, accompanied by a dull aching pain in the centre of the chest.

Adam - Someone having a heart attack usually looks pale, sweaty and clammy, and their pulse rate might become irregular, be going too fast or running too slowly.

Marika - The first thing a doctor or a paramedic will do to investigate is an ECG or Electrocardiogram. This is an electrical tracing of the heart.

Adam - Heart attacks often produce characteristic changes to the normal ECG pattern which can also reveal where in the heart the damage is occurring.

Marika - Doctors can also use blood tests to confirm when a heart attack has taken place.

Adam - One of these is called a “troponin test.” It looks for molecules called “troponins” that leak in the bloodstream from damaged heart muscle cells. Patients who have suffered a recent heart attack will have high levels of troponin in their blood.

Marika - Following the diagnosis, doctors will quickly try to reopen the blocked artery to restore blood flow and reduce the damage done to the heart.

Adam - This is called an “angioplasty procedure.” It involves placing a fine cannula from a wrist or leg artery into the heart arteries and using X rays to spot where the blockage is.

Marika - A balloon is then inflated inside the clogged artery to squash the blood clot out of the way so blood can flow again.

Adam - The balloon is removed and replaced with a small metal cage called a “stent,” which is inserted to prop the vessel open so that it cannot close up again afterwards.

Marike - Patients are then given blood thinning drugs, like aspirin, to ensure that further blood clots don’t form and block the stent.

Adam - Usually, people recover quite well, but the area of muscle damaged by the heart attack can form a scar which can reduce the ability of the heart to pump, which means some people are at risk of heart failure.

Marika - After a heart attack, patients are given help to reduce their risk factors, which includes advice to take regular exercise, control their cholesterol and blood pressure, eat healthily, and not to smoke.


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