Stinging in the chest, shortness of breath: you should pay attention to these signs! How to recognize a heart attack and what to do
What is a heart attack (myocardial infarction)?
The best way to understand how the heart works is to think of it as a pump that powers the bloodstream to supply oxygen and nutrients to the entire body. In order for the heart to pump blood properly into the veins, it must be supplied with blood and oxygen through the coronary arteries.
However, this is precisely not the case with a heart attack. The blood supply to the heart is severely impaired or completely prevented. This happens when a coronary artery becomes blocked. “The heart does not get enough oxygen and the corresponding heart tissue dies,” explains Prof. Dr. Dr. med. Christian Jung from the University Hospital Düsseldorf. “As a result, the heart can no longer pump properly.” It is not unimportant whether a small or a large heart vessel is affected. If one of the three large coronary arteries is blocked, a comparatively large part of the heart dies – then the heart attack can be fatal within a few minutes.
What are the causes of a heart attack?
A heart attack, called ‘myocardial infarction’ in medicine, can have several causes. By far the most common cause of a heart attack, however, is arteriosclerosis . Fat and calcium deposits form on the inner wall of the blood vessels, the so-called plaques . These plaques create a constriction within the blood vessel. Over time, these bottlenecks continue to grow. This can lead to the blood vessel closing completely and the blood supply to this area coming to a complete standstill.
Arteriosclerosis can also cause a blood clot , a so-called thrombus . Particles of the resulting fat or calcium deposits can tear off the inner wall of the vessel and then circulate in the blood. The torn plaque is then enveloped in platelets. This happens with injuries and is actually vital, as it closes wounds and thus stops bleeding. The problem here, however, is that the diameter of a plaque increases until a so-called thrombus develops. The thrombus then gets caught in the constriction. There it clogs the blood vessel and prevents blood flow. Consequence: heart attack.
The formation of a thrombus can also have other causes, for example due to a reduced blood flow rate. This often happens when you do not move enough for a long time, for example as a result of a hospital stay or when you cover long distances by plane or train, for example. This thrombus then often leads to a thrombosis and less often to a heart attack
What are the symptoms of a heart attack?
With a heart attack, every second counts! It is therefore particularly important that you recognize the following signs of a heart attack and call an ambulance immediately:
- Sudden pain in the mostly left side of the chest : This pain can also radiate into the left arm, neck and stomach area.
- Chest tightness : you feel a pressure or constriction in the heart area. Like an elephant sitting on your chest.
- Shortness of breath : The heart’s pumping capacity is reduced, so the oxygen supply to the body drops and you get the oppressive feeling of being unable to breathe.
- Feeling afraid with cold sweats : You develop the feeling that you are in a life-threatening situation. Fear, often accompanied by a cold sweat, arises in you.
However, these symptoms are only partially valid for diabetics. The diabetes causes nerve damage that affects the pain sensation. “Since nerve damage can also occur in the heart, many diabetics perceive the heart attack symptoms less or not at all,” explains Professor Jung. Such a heart attack without pain is called a ‘ silent heart attack ‘
What are the consequences of a heart attack?
There are three major coronary arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. These large coronary vessels further divide into smaller blood vessels. How life-threatening a heart attack ultimately is depends, among other things, on the blood vessel in which the blockage occurs. The larger the blocked blood vessel, the more heart tissue dies. The area scars and is replaced by connective tissue, which reduces the performance of the heart muscle. When it comes to the effects of a heart attack, a distinction is made between short-term and long-term dangers:
- Short-term: Every heart attack is an acutely life-threatening situation. “During a heart attack, heart tissue actively dies and life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias and ventricular fibrillation can occur,” says Professor Jung. This is why it is so important that you react quickly and call an emergency doctor. This starts an emergency supply chain, which includes that you will be taken to the nearest cardiac catheterization laboratory. With the help of a catheter that is inserted through an artery, for example on the wrist, the constriction in the heart can be opened again.
- Long-term: The heart is responsible for supplying oxygen to all organs in the body. If heart muscle tissue dies as a result of a heart attack, this means that the heart’s pumping function deteriorates, which in turn reduces the body’s performance. In addition, a heart attack increases the risk of another cardiac event – from fatal cardiac arrhythmias to cardiac arrest.
First aid for a heart attack
In some cases, cardiac arrest can occur due to a heart attack . If you notice that someone around you is suddenly no longer responsive and has no signs of circulatory system, immediately dial the emergency number 112 and start resuscitation measures as a first aid (chest compressions or alternating cardiac massage and mouth-to-mouth Ventilation: alternately press 30 times and ventilate twice)! The longer a person has cardiovascular arrest, the more life threatening it is. Every minute counts! If the person concerned can be spoken to, you should – while you wait for the ambulance – lie his upper body upright, loosen his shirt collar and tie and give him a calming effect so that he breathes as slowly and deeply as possible.
Risk factors for a heart attack
There are a number of risk factors that can make a heart attack more likely. Some factors, such as being overweight, can influence you directly, others, such as genetic predisposition, less so.
The risk factors for a heart attack include:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- high blood pressure
- Increased blood lipids
- Diabetes mellitus
- Genetic predisposition, e.g. due to a blood clotting disorder or blood lipid disorder
4 tips on how to prevent a heart attack
You can effectively minimize the risk of heart attacks with these rules of conduct:
- Say ‘no’ to the glowing stick: “Most young patients who have a heart attack are smokers,” explains Professor Jung. Smoking makes the blood vessels rigid, accelerates arteriosclerosis and increases blood pressure.
- Pay attention to your alcohol consumption: There is little objection to a small glass of red wine. However, it is important not to overdo it. Make sure you don’t consume more than 20 grams of alcohol per day. But that is achieved faster than you think. If you drink two small bottles of beer, you have already exceeded the limit of 20 grams.
- Eat a healthy diet : A Mediterranean diet that contains a lot of vegetables and fruit, fish and good fats (such as olive oil or rapeseed oil) but little meat, salt and hydrogenated fats is good for the heart. Because a balanced diet has a positive effect on blood pressure. In addition, it prevents arteriosclerosis and supplies the body with sufficient nutrients.
- Do endurance sports: Moderate and continuous training reduces your risk of heart attacks. Jogging, cross trainer, swimming or cycling are ideal. Endurance sport increases blood circulation, accelerates the blood flow rate, strengthens the heart and encourages the formation of new blood vessels. Exercise also prevents obesity and high blood pressure and reduces stress.