Acute myocardial infarction is the medical term for what is commonly known as a heart attack. This cardiovascular event occurs when one of the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart, becomes blocked. This causes blood flow to the heart to be suddenly cut off or critically reduced, leading to tissue damage in the heart that can result in significant impairment of heart function or death.
The most common cause of acute myocardial infarction is coronary artery disease, a condition characterized by a buildup of plaque in the arteries over time, narrowing these blood vessels. Typically, myocardial infarction, or heart attack, happens when a blood clot blocks one of those already restricted arteries, blocking the flow of blood. More rarely, the trigger can be a spasm in the coronary artery, temporarily blocking blood flow.
Risk factors that may make individuals more susceptible to acute myocardial infarction include:
- High blood pressure
- Elevated levels of LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, and/or elevated levels of triglycerides in the bloodstream
- Diabetes or pre-diabetes
- Overweight or obesity
- Sedentary lifestyles
- Chronic stress
- Poor dietary habits
- A family history of heart attack
Signs and Symptoms
In about 25 percent of cases, acute myocardial infarction occurs with no signs, symptoms, or warnings. For heart attack victims who do experience signs and symptoms, these may include:
- Feelings of heaviness or pressure across the chest
- Pain in the chest, back, jaw and/or upper body
- Elevated heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea and vomiting
- Excessive sweating
Anyone experiencing any of the above symptoms should seek emergency medical attention immediately, since early treatment provides the best opportunity to minimize permanent damage to the heart muscle.
If you have not yet suffered a heart attack, knowing your personal risk factors is the first step in effective prevention. A visit to your doctor for an exam and a few health screening tests to measure blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, among other factors, is the best way to identify those risk factors.
While some factors, like a family history of myocardial infarction, cannot be controlled, taking action on lifestyle-related risk factors – such as quitting smoking, losing weight, exercising more, and learning about and following a heart-healthy diet – can significantly reduce overall risk. Working closely with your health care team to control health conditions that increase risk, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, is also vital to prevention.
If you have already experienced a first heart attack, you reduce risk of another such incident and, in many cases, make a very successful recovery by working closely with your heath care team. Often, a cardiac rehab program is the first step in that recovery, which aids and supervises patients as they regain strength and educates them on lifestyle strategies for improving cardiovascular health.
Depending upon the amount of damage done to the heart muscle, you may require medications to aid in recovery and, in many cases, for long-term maintenance of adequate cardiovascular function. These medications are vital to reducing risk further incidents, so it is essential that your medication routine is well-organized, with prescriptions filled in a timely fashion and medications taken exactly as directed.
If access or affordability is an issue, speak to your doctor or hospital social worker about resources that can help – especially patient assistance programs, which offer help to obtain needed medications to people who are uninsured, or those who have insurance, but their medications aren’t covered or their copays are too high.