Heart Attack and Unstable Angina

Overview

Picture of the heart

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Without blood and the oxygen it carries, part of the heart starts to die. A heart attack doesn't have to be deadly. Quick treatment can restore blood flow to the heart and save your life.

Your doctor might call a heart attack a myocardial infarction, or MI. Your doctor might also use the term acute coronary syndrome for your heart attack or unstable angina.

What is angina, and why is unstable angina a concern?

Angina (say "ANN-juh-nuh" or "ann-JY-nuh") is a type of chest pain or discomfort that occurs when there is not enough blood flow to the heart. Angina can be dangerous. So it is important to pay attention to chest pain, know what is typical for you, learn how to control it, and understand when you need to get treatment.

There are two types of angina:

  • Stable angina is chest pain that has a typical pattern. It happens when your heart is working harder and needs more oxygen, such as during exercise. The pain goes away when you rest.
  • Unstable angina is chest pain that is unexpected, and resting or taking nitroglycerin may not help. Your doctor will probably diagnose unstable angina if you are having chest pain for the first time or if your pain is getting worse, lasting longer, happening more often, or happening at rest.

Unstable angina is a warning sign that a heart attack may happen soon, so it requires treatment right away. But if you have any type of chest pain, see your doctor.

What causes a heart attack?

Heart attacks happen when blood flow to the heart is blocked. This usually occurs because fatty deposits called plaque have built up inside the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart. If a plaque breaks open, the body tries to fix it by forming a clot around it. The clot can block the artery, preventing the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart. See a picture of how plaque causes a heart attack.

This process of plaque buildup in the coronary arteries is called coronary artery disease, or CAD. In many people, plaque begins to form in childhood and gradually builds up over a lifetime. Plaque deposits may limit blood flow to the heart and cause angina. But too often, a heart attack is the first sign of CAD.

Things like intense exercise, sudden strong emotion, or illegal drug use (such as a stimulant, like cocaine) can trigger a heart attack. But in many cases, there is no clear reason why heart attacks occur when they do.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain.

  • Many people describe the pain as discomfort, pressure, squeezing, or heaviness in the chest.
  • People often put their fist to their chest when they describe the pain.
  • The pain may spread down the left shoulder and arm and to other areas, such as the back, jaw, neck, or right arm.

Many people also have at least one other symptom, such as:

  • Pain in the upper belly, often mistaken for heartburn.
  • Sweating.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • A feeling that their heart is racing or pounding (palpitations).
  • Feeling weak or very tired.
  • Feeling dizzy or fainting.

Not everyone has the classic symptom of chest pain during a heart attack. Women, older adults, and people with diabetes are slightly more likely to have other symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea, back pain, or jaw pain.

What should you do if you think you are having a heart attack?

If you have symptoms of a heart attack, act fast. Quick treatment could save your life.

If you are having chest pain and your doctor has prescribed nitroglycerin for angina:

  1. Take 1 dose of nitroglycerin and wait 5 minutes.
  2. If the chest pain doesn't improve or it gets worse, call 911 or other emergency services. Describe your symptoms, and say that you could be having a heart attack.
  3. Stay on the phone. The emergency operator will tell you what to do.
  4. After you call for help, chew 1 adult-strength aspirin or 2 to 4 low-dose aspirin unless you cannot take aspirin because of allergy or some other reason. Aspirin helps keep blood from clotting, so it may help you survive a heart attack.

If you are having chest pain and you do not have nitroglycerin:

  1. Call 911 or other emergency services now. Describe your symptoms, and say that you could be having a heart attack.
  2. Stay on the phone. The emergency operator will tell you what to do.
  3. After you call for help, chew 1 adult-strength aspirin or 2 to 4 low-dose aspirin unless you cannot take aspirin because of allergy or some other reason. Aspirin helps keep blood from clotting, so it may help you survive a heart attack.

The best choice is to go to the hospital in an ambulance. The paramedics can begin lifesaving treatments even before you arrive at the hospital. If you cannot reach emergency services, have someone drive you to the hospital right away. Do not drive yourself unless you have absolutely no other choice.

If you think you are having unstable angina but you are not sure, follow the steps listed above. Unstable angina can lead to a heart attack or death, so you need to have it checked right away.

How is a heart attack treated?

If you go to the hospital in an ambulance, treatment will be started right away to restore blood flow and limit damage to the heart. You may be given medicines, including:

  • Aspirin (if you have not already taken some) and other medicines to prevent blood clots.
  • Medicines that break up blood clots (thrombolytics). To work, these must be given within a few hours of the start of the heart attack.
  • Medicines to decrease the heart's workload, ease pain, and treat abnormal heart rhythms, which can be life-threatening.

At the hospital, you will have tests, such as:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) . An EKG can detect signs of poor blood flow, heart muscle damage, abnormal heartbeats, and other heart problems.
  • Blood tests, including tests to see whether cardiac enzymes are high. Having these enzymes in the blood is usually a sign that the heart has been damaged.

If these tests show that you may be having a heart attack, you may have a cardiac catheterization. For this test, the doctor puts a thin, flexible tube (called a catheter) through an artery in the groin or arm and carefully guides it into the heart. (See a picture of catheter placement.) A dye is injected that makes the coronary arteries show up on a computer screen. The doctor then can see if the coronary arteries are blocked and how your heart is working.

If cardiac catheterization shows that an artery is blocked, the doctor may do angioplasty right away. The doctor guides the catheter into the narrowed artery, and a small balloon at the end of it is inflated. This widens the artery to help restore blood flow. Often a small wire-mesh tube called a stent is placed to keep the artery open. See a picture of angioplasty with stent placement.

Angioplasty, with or without a stent, is the preferred treatment for a heart attack. But if angioplasty is not available or cannot be done soon, “clot-busting” thrombolytic medicines may be used. Or the doctor may do emergency bypass surgery to redirect blood around the blocked artery.

After these treatments, medicines are given to prevent clots, reduce the heart’s workload, and lower cholesterol. These can help prevent another heart attack and heart failure. Most people who have had a heart attack take these and sometimes other medicines for the rest of their lives.

After you have had a heart attack, the chance that you will have another one is higher. Taking part in a cardiac rehab program helps lower this risk. A cardiac rehab program is designed for you and supervised by doctors and other specialists. It can help you learn how to eat a balanced diet and exercise safely to reduce your risk of more heart problems.

It is common to feel worried and afraid after a heart attack. But if you are feeling very sad or hopeless, ask your doctor about treatment. Getting treatment for depression may help you recover from a heart attack.

Can you prevent a heart attack?

Heart attacks are usually the result of heart disease, so taking steps to delay or reverse coronary artery disease can help prevent a heart attack. Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, so these steps are important for everyone.

To improve your heart health:

  • Don't smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke. Quitting smoking can quickly reduce the risk of another heart attack or death.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet that includes plenty of fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, high-fiber grains and breads, and olive oil.
  • Get regular exercise. Your doctor can suggest a safe level of exercise for you.
  • Control your cholesterol and blood pressure.
  • Manage your diabetes.
  • Lower your stress level. Stress can damage your heart.
  • Take a daily aspirin if your doctor advises it.
  • Get a flu shot every year.
  • Take all of your medicines correctly. Taking medicine can lower your risk of having another heart attack or dying from coronary artery disease.
  • Seek help to manage symptoms of depression.

More information

For more information about heart disease, see the topic Coronary Artery Disease.

Health Tools Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.


Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems. Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
  End-of-life care: Should I receive CPR and life support?
  Heart attack: Should I take daily aspirin to prevent a heart attack or stroke?

Actionsets help people take an active role in managing a health condition. Actionsets are designed to help people take an active role in managing a health condition.
  Heart disease: Eating a heart-healthy diet
  Heart disease: Exercising for a healthy heart
  Heart problems: Living with a pacemaker or ICD
  High blood pressure: Using the DASH diet
  Warfarin: Taking your medicine safely

Interactive tools help people determine health risks, ideal weight, target heart rate, and more. Interactive tools are designed to help people determine health risks, ideal weight, target heart rate, and more.
  Interactive Tool: Are You at Risk for a Heart Attack?

Cause

The major cause of unstable angina and heart attack is coronary artery disease (CAD). Coronary artery disease occurs when plaque builds up over years inside your coronary arteries and reduces blood flow to the heart muscle. In many people, coronary artery disease begins in adolescence and gradually develops over a lifetime.

High cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking damage your arteries and contribute to plaque buildup. The process of plaque buildup in the arteries is called atherosclerosis. See pictures of atherosclerosis and how high blood pressure damages arteries.

Plaques are deposits of cholesterol, calcium, and other substances that are covered by a fibrous cap. If a sudden surge in blood pressure occurs, if the artery suddenly constricts, or if other factors such as inflammation are present, the fibrous cap can tear or rupture. The body tries to repair the tear, much as it might stop bleeding from a cut on the skin, by forming a blood clot over it. The blood clot can completely block blood flow through the coronary artery to the heart muscle and cause a heart attack. See a picture of how plaque causes a heart attack.

But plaque is not always the cause of a heart attack. In rare cases, the coronary artery spasms and contracts, obstructing blood flow and causing chest pain. If severe, the spasm can completely block blood flow and cause a heart attack. Most of the time in these cases, atherosclerosis is also involved, although sometimes the arteries are clear. Cocaine, cold weather, emotional stress, and other factors can cause these spasms. But in many other cases, it is not known what triggers the spasm.

A blood clot that forms over a ruptured plaque may not completely block the artery but may block blood flow enough to cause unstable angina. Unstable angina is a sign that a heart attack may soon follow, because the blood clot can quickly grow and block the artery. If the blood clot dissolves, and an immediate heart attack is avoided, the body will try over time to repair the tear on the surface of the plaque. But this newly repaired plaque can also be very unstable. It is more likely to rupture again, putting you at even greater risk of a heart attack.

Heart attack triggers

In most cases, there are no clear reasons why heart attacks occur when they do. But sometimes your body releases adrenaline and other hormones into the bloodstream in response to intense emotions such as anger, fear, and the "fight or flight" impulse. Heavy physical exercise, emotional stress, lack of sleep, and overeating can also trigger this response. Adrenaline increases blood pressure and heart rate and can cause coronary arteries to constrict, which may cause an unstable plaque to rupture.

Nicotine, which is found in tobacco products, and cocaine can cause similar responses.

More information

Symptoms

The most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain, although this sensation is not always present.

Women, older adults, and people with diabetes are slightly more likely to have other symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea, back pain, or jaw pain.

It is possible to have a "silent heart attack" without any symptoms, but this is rare. Most people have chest pain and at least one other symptom, such as:

  • A feeling of choking or a "tight throat," a lump in the throat, or a need to keep swallowing.
  • A cold sweat.
  • Nausea.
  • A sense of impending doom.
  • Difficulty breathing or breathlessness.
  • Palpitations , or feeling your heart beat rapidly or irregularly. (Palpitations are very common and are usually harmless in a healthy heart, but they may signal coronary artery disease if brought on by exertion.)
  • Numbness or discomfort in either arm or hand.
  • Weakness.

People who are having a heart attack often describe their chest pain in various ways. The pain:

  • May feel like pressure, heaviness, weight, tightness, squeezing, discomfort, burning, a sharp ache (less common), or a dull ache. People often put their fist to their chest when describing the pain.
  • May radiate from the chest down the left shoulder and arm (the most common site) and also to other areas, including the left shoulder, middle of the back, upper portion of the abdomen, right arm, neck, and jaw. See a picture of the areas where you might have pain during a heart attack.
  • May be diffuse—the exact location of the pain is usually difficult to point out.
  • Is not made worse by taking a deep breath or pressing on the chest.
  • Usually begins at a low level, then gradually increases over several minutes to a peak. The discomfort may come and go. Chest pain that reaches its maximum intensity within seconds may represent another serious problem, such as an aortic aneurysm.

Call 911 or your local emergency services if:

  • Your chest pain gets worse or lasts more than 5 minutes, especially if you are short of breath or feel weak, nauseated, or lightheaded.
  • Your chest pain doesn't improve or gets worse within 5 minutes after taking 1 dose of nitroglycerin.

It may not always be possible to tell the difference between unstable angina and a heart attack. Often the symptoms are similar. Both conditions require immediate emergency care.

People who have unstable angina often describe their pain as:

  • Starting within the past 2 months and becoming more severe.
  • Limiting their physical activity.
  • Suddenly becoming more frequent, severe, or longer-lasting or being brought on by less exertion than before.
  • Occurring at rest with no obvious exertion or stress. It may wake the person up.
  • Not responding to rest or nitroglycerin.

The symptoms of stable angina are different from those of unstable angina. Stable angina occurs at predictable times with a specific amount of exertion or activity and may continue without much change for years. It is relieved by rest or nitrates (nitroglycerin) and usually lasts less than 5 minutes.

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What Increases Your Risk

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the major cause of heart attacks. So the more risk factors you have for CAD, the greater your risk for developing unstable angina or having a heart attack. Smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and a family history of early CAD are all strong risk factors for coronary artery disease. For more information, see the What Increases Your Risk section of the topic Coronary Artery Disease.

Use the heart attack risk calculator to estimate your risk of having a heart attack over 10 years. This tool is designed to estimate risk in adults age 20 and older who do not have heart disease or diabetes.

Even if you already have coronary artery disease or have had a heart attack, you can still lower your risk of another heart attack. To lower your risk:

  • Stop smoking. Quitting smoking is probably the most important step to decrease your chance of a heart attack. Avoid secondhand smoke too.
  • Reduce high cholesterol. High cholesterol can lead to a buildup of cholesterol inside your arteries.
  • Lower high blood pressure. High blood pressure damages the coronary arteries and increases the heart's workload.
  • Manage diabetes. People who have diabetes develop hardening and narrowing of the arteries more frequently and at a younger age than those not affected by diabetes.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Weight loss frequently improves blood pressure and cholesterol levels and may also help control diabetes.
  • Be physically active. Regular exercise can help reduce your risk of heart attack by helping you to control cholesterol and blood pressure, regulate blood sugar (important for people with diabetes), and lose weight. Try to do activities that raise your heart rate. Aim for at least 2½ hours of moderate exercise a week.1 One way to do this is to be active 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week. It's fine to be active in blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your day and week.
  • Manage depression and emotions. Treating depression and treating anger problems are important steps in improving cardiac and overall health and quality of life.
  • Reduce stress. Stress causes increased blood pressure and heart rate and causes your arteries to narrow, increasing your risk for heart attack.
  • Evaluate birth control pill and hormone replacement therapy use. Birth control pills are more likely to increase a woman's risk if she is older than 35 and smokes cigarettes. Hormone therapy (estrogen with or without progestin) may increase the risk for heart disease. This risk is higher for some women than others.
  • Take an aspirin every day (check with your doctor first to make sure you have no medical reasons for not taking it).
  • Avoid getting sick from the flu. Get a flu shot every year.
  • Take all of your medicines correctly. Taking medicine can lower your risk of having another heart attack or dying from coronary artery disease.

Some risk factors are beyond your control. These include:

A type of protein in your blood may help find your risk of a heart attack. This protein is called a high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP). It is found with a C-reactive protein (CRP) blood test. This test may help find your risk for a heart attack, especially when it is considered along with other risk factors such as cholesterol, age, blood pressure, and smoking. But the connection between high CRP levels and heart disease risk is not understood very well.

Most nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are used to relieve pain and fever and reduce swelling and inflammation, may increase the risk of heart attack. This risk is greater if you take NSAIDs at higher doses or for long periods of time. People who are older than 65 or who have existing heart, stomach, or intestinal disease are more likely to have problems.

Aspirin, unlike other NSAIDs, has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. But it also carries the risks of serious stomach and intestinal bleeding as well as skin reactions. Regular use of other NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, may make aspirin less effective in preventing heart attack and stroke.

When to Call a Doctor

Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you have any of the following symptoms of a heart attack:

  • You have chest pain that has not improved or that gets worse within 5 minutes after taking 1 dose of nitroglycerin and/or resting. After you call 911, continue to stay on the phone with the emergency operator. He or she will give you further instructions. See how to take nitroglycerin.
  • You have chest pain or discomfort that is crushing or squeezing, feels like pressure on the chest, and gets worse or lasts more than 5 minutes, especially if it occurs with any of the following symptoms:
    • Sweating
    • Shortness of breath
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Pain that spreads from the chest to the neck, the jaw, or one or both shoulders or arms
    • Dizziness or lightheadedness
    • A fast or irregular pulse
    • Signs of shock

Women, older adults, and people with diabetes are slightly more likely to have other symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea, back pain, or jaw pain.

After you call 911 or other emergency services, you should chew 1 adult-strength aspirin (325 mg) or 2 to 4 low-dose aspirin (81 mg) unless you cannot take aspirin because of allergy or some other reason. By calling 911 and taking an ambulance to the hospital, you may be able to start treatment before you arrive at the hospital. If any complications occur along the way, ambulance personnel are trained to evaluate and treat them.

If an ambulance is not readily available, have someone else drive you to the emergency room. Do not drive yourself to the hospital.

If you witness a person become unconscious, call 911 or other emergency services and start CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). The emergency operator can coach you on how to perform CPR. To learn more about CPR, see the Rescue Breathing and Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) section of the topic Dealing With Emergencies.

Never wait if you have symptoms of a heart attack. Many people are unsure if they are having a heart attack and take a "wait and see" approach. Heart attack symptoms can vary. People often discount their symptoms if they do not fit into the expected "extreme chest pain" scenario. Some people are embarrassed or don't want to bother others by calling for help if they think it may not be a heart attack. Even if you're not sure it's a heart attack, you should still have it checked out. Rapid treatment can save your life.

Who to See

You will be evaluated and treated by an emergency medicine specialist in the emergency room. For ongoing care, you will likely see a cardiologist. If surgery is needed, you will be referred to a cardiovascular surgeon.

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Exams and Tests

Emergency evaluation for a heart attack

After you call 911 for a heart attack, paramedics will quickly assess your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate and place electrodes on your chest for an electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG). An electrocardiogram is a graphic record of the heart's electrical activity as it contracts and relaxes. The ECG's jagged-line image appears on a portable monitor. And in some areas this image can be transmitted to the hospital emergency room so a doctor there can assess your condition before you arrive.

When you arrive at the hospital, the emergency room doctor will take your history and perform a physical exam, and a more complete ECG will be done. An ECG can detect signs of insufficient blood flow, heart muscle damage, abnormal heartbeats, and other heart problems. A technician will draw blood to test for cardiac enzymes, which are released into the bloodstream when heart cells die. The presence of the protein troponin in the blood usually means that there has been heart damage.

Results of these tests are usually available quickly. If your tests show that you are at risk of having or are having a heart attack, your doctor will probably recommend that you have cardiac catheterization. During a cardiac catheterization, a fine tube (called a catheter) is threaded through an artery in your arm or leg and up into the heart. Then a dye that contains iodine is injected, which makes the coronary arteries visible on a digital X-ray screen. The doctor can then see whether your coronary arteries are blocked and how your heart functions.

If an artery appears blocked, angioplasty with stent placement, a procedure to open up clogged arteries, may be done during the catheterization, or you will be referred to a cardiovascular surgeon for coronary artery bypass graft surgery.

If your tests do not clearly indicate a heart attack or unstable angina and you do not have other high-risk indicators (such as a previous heart attack), you will probably have other tests, such as a myocardial perfusion scan, also called single photon emission computed tomography or SPECT imaging. SPECT is a noninvasive imaging scan that is often done while you are in the emergency department to help determine whether you are at risk of heart attack.

If your SPECT test is abnormal, you are considered at high risk and may need cardiac catheterization.

If your tests do not indicate a heart attack but your doctor thinks you have unstable angina and may be in danger of having a heart attack, you will be admitted to the hospital.

Testing after a heart attack

From 2 to 3 days after a heart attack or after being admitted to the hospital for unstable angina, you may have more tests to assess how well your heart is working and to find out whether undamaged areas of the heart are still receiving adequate blood flow.

These tests may include:

  • Echocardiogram (echo). An echo is an ultrasound exam used to evaluate the size, thickness, shape, and movement of the heart muscle. It also evaluates blood flow, ejection fraction, and the heart valves.
  • Stress electrocardiogram (such as treadmill testing). A stress test compares your ECG while you are at rest to your ECG after your heart has been stressed, either through physical exercise (treadmill or bike) or by using a medicine. A stress test can detect ischemia, which is reduced blood flow to the heart muscle.
  • Stress echocardiogram. A stress echocardiogram can show whether you may have reduced blood flow to the heart.
  • Cardiac perfusion scan. A thallium scan or technetium scan (also called a sestamibi scan) is a test used to estimate the amount of blood reaching the heart muscle during rest and exercise.
  • Angiogram. In this test, a dye (contrast material) is injected into the coronary arteries to evaluate your heart and coronary arteries.
  • Cardiac blood pool scan. This test shows how well your heart is pumping blood to the rest of your body.
  • Cholesterol test. This test shows the amounts of cholesterol in your blood.

Treatment Overview

When a heart attack is in progress, you need to act quickly. Prompt treatment with medicines, angioplasty combined with stenting, or surgery to restore blood flow soon after symptoms first begin can prevent permanent injury to the heart muscle and save your life.

Initial treatment

If you are having a heart attack, the goal of your health care team will be to prevent permanent heart muscle damage by restoring blood flow to your heart as quickly as possible. If you are transported to the hospital in an ambulance, you will be given oxygen therapy and probably nitroglycerin or a pain reliever, such as morphine.

Also, aspirin (which is usually chewed on the way to the hospital or in the emergency room), heparin, and antiplatelet drugs are given to prevent clots from growing. Other medicines will be given initially to decrease your heart's workload, improve its pumping function, and treat life-threatening abnormal heartbeats if they occur.

The time it takes to get to a hospital is critical because angioplasty with or without stenting to open blocked arteries or "clot-busting" thrombolytic medicines to dissolve clots are most effective if used within the first several hours after symptoms start. Thrombolytics are given through an intravenous (IV) line and travel to the coronary arteries where they break up clots.

Numerous studies have shown that percutaneous coronary intervention (angioplasty with or without stenting) saves lives.

Although angioplasty with or without stenting is usually the preferred treatment, it is not available at all hospitals. So some communities are training paramedics to identify people who have signs of heart attack so that they can be transported directly to a heart center, even if it means bypassing a closer hospital.

If you are treated at a hospital that has proper equipment and staff, you may be taken to the cardiac catheterization lab where your doctor will evaluate your coronary arteries to determine whether angioplasty or coronary artery bypass graft surgery is appropriate.

If angioplasty with or without stenting is not possible, either because of the location of the blockage or because of numerous blockages, emergency coronary artery bypass surgery may be done.

If you are having unstable angina, you most likely will be admitted to the hospital and given medicines, including aspirin, other antiplatelet medicines, and heparin. You will be closely monitored and tested. If chest pain continues after the above treatment and you are at high risk for heart attack, your doctor may decide to perform coronary catheterization and plan for possible angioplasty and stent placement to prevent a heart attack.

Ongoing treatment

After you have had a heart attack, you will stay in the hospital for at least a few days so your heart rate and rhythm, blood pressure, and medicines can be closely monitored. You will stay in the hospital because after a heart attack you are at high risk of having serious complications, such as life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms and heart failure.

To reduce the risk of complications, your doctor will start you on medicines. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs), and beta-blockers may improve your chance of survival after a heart attack.

Cholesterol-lowering medicines called statins are usually given to lower your LDL cholesterol level to less than 100 mg/dL. Cholesterol-lowering medicines can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Aspirin, other antiplatelet medicines such as clopidogrel (Plavix), or anticoagulants (such as warfarin) may be used after a heart attack. These medicines are used to lower the risk of another heart attack and to prevent blood clots from forming in the heart, which could break loose and travel to the brain, causing a stroke. If you take warfarin, you need to take extra steps to avoid bleeding problems. For more information see:

Click here to view an Actionset. Warfarin: Taking your medicine safely.

The amount of heart muscle that is permanently damaged may be less than it appears immediately after a heart attack has occurred. Some heart tissue may be "stunned myocardium," or heart muscle that is not able to contract normally at first but is later able to function normally. Your heart's pumping capacity will be closely monitored and your treatment adjusted as needed during this time.

Research highlights the importance of quitting smoking after a heart attack. People who continue to smoke after a heart attack are much more likely than nonsmokers to have another heart attack. Among those who stop smoking, their risk starts decreasing a lot in the first year they stop smoking. Their risk keeps dropping until it becomes the same as the risk for nonsmokers in about 3 years.

If you smoke, your doctor will strongly advise that you quit and avoid secondhand smoke too. Your doctor may prescribe medicine and therapy to help you do so. Studies show that nicotine replacement therapy, use of the medicine bupropion (such as Zyban or Wellbutrin), and supportive therapy significantly increase long-term success in quitting.2, 3 For more information on how to quit, see the topic Quitting Smoking.

After a heart attack, you are a candidate for cardiac rehabilitation to lower your risk of death related to heart disease. Rehabilitation (rehab) and lifestyle changes are an important part of your recovery after a heart attack. For more information, see the topic Cardiac Rehabilitation.

If you do not participate in a cardiac rehab program, you will still need to learn about necessary lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, eating a low-fat diet, and perhaps starting an exercise program.

Avoid getting sick from the flu. Get a flu shot every year.

Treatment if the condition gets worse

Heart attacks that damage crucial or large areas of the heart tend to cause more complications later. If only a small amount of heart muscle dies, the heart may still function normally after a heart attack.

Scar tissue eventually replaces the areas of heart muscle tissue that are damaged by a heart attack. Scar tissue limits your heart's ability to pump effectively. Damage to the left ventricle can limit the heart's capacity to pump. This damage can lead to heart failure.

If the heart attack damaged the area of your heart that regulates your heart rate, your heart can develop abnormal heart rhythms, called arrhythmias. In this case, you may need a pacemaker, which is a device that stimulates the heart to beat and regulates the heart rate, and possibly medicines to control your heart rhythms. Some arrhythmias also increase your risk for stroke.

The chance that these complications will develop depends on the amount of heart tissue affected by a heart attack and whether medicines are given during and after a heart attack to help prevent these complications. Other factors, such as your age and general health, also determine your risk of complications and death.

Palliative care

If your condition gets worse, you may want to think about palliative care. Palliative care is a kind of care for people who have illnesses that do not go away and often get worse over time. It is different than care to cure your illness, called curative treatment. Palliative care focuses on improving your quality of life—not just in your body, but also in your mind and spirit. Some people combine palliative care with curative care.

Palliative care may help you manage symptoms or side effects from treatment. It could also help you cope with your feelings about living with a long-term illness, make future plans for your medical care, or help your family better understand your illness and how to support you.

If you are interested in palliative care, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to manage your care or refer you to a doctor who specializes in this type of care.

For more information, see the topic Palliative Care.

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Prevention

The percentage of Americans who have a heart attack, as well as the number of resulting deaths, has continued to decrease since the 1970s. This decrease is due to both advances in medicine and lifestyle changes that people are making to prevent coronary artery disease (CAD) and heart attack.

Important lifestyle changes that you can make are to quit smoking and to get plenty of exercise. Eating a balanced diet that is low in saturated fats and rich in fruits and vegetables is also advised.

Lifestyle changes may include:

General dietary guidelines for heart-healthy eating may be recommended, such as the:

Specific dietary considerations involve:

Cholesterol

Having high cholesterol increases your risk of coronary artery disease. If diet and exercise are not effective in lowering your cholesterol to a safe level, your doctor will probably prescribe a statin, a cholesterol-lowering medicine. These medicines have been proved effective in treating high cholesterol. And now doctors are beginning to prescribe them for people with lower cholesterol levels. Cholesterol-lowering drugs can also help people with normal to moderately high levels of cholesterol. In these people, cholesterol-lowering drugs combined with lifestyle changes may slow the development of atherosclerosis and lower the risk of heart attack or death.

Aspirin

Aspirin may reduce the risk of developing blood clots that can lead to a heart attack in people with known CAD and in people with multiple risk factors for CAD, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. There are some risks associated with aspirin therapy that you should discuss with your doctor before you begin this type of treatment. If you cannot take aspirin, your doctor may prescribe another antiplatelet medicine, such as clopidogrel (Plavix). For more information, see:

Click here to view a Decision Point. Heart attack: Should I take daily aspirin to prevent a heart attack or stroke?

Hormone therapy

Taking estrogen with or without progestin does not prevent coronary artery disease. In fact, if you are 10 or more years past menopause, taking hormone therapy may raise your risk of coronary artery disease.4

Talk to your doctor about your risks with hormone therapy. And carefully weigh the benefits against the risks of taking it. If you need relief for symptoms of menopause, hormone therapy is one choice you can think about. But there are other types of treatment for problems like hot flashes and sleep problems. For more information, see the topic Menopause and Perimenopause.

Ongoing Concerns

After you've had a heart attack, your biggest concern will probably be that you could have another one. Taking your medicines as directed will be an important part of preventing another heart attack. Medicines commonly prescribed after a heart attack include drugs to:

  • Prevent blood clots.
  • Decrease the work of your heart.
  • Improve your heart’s pumping ability.
  • Lower cholesterol.
  • Treat irregular heartbeats.
  • Lower blood pressure.

Understanding what coronary artery disease (CAD) is and how to treat it may help prevent a future heart attack. For more information, see the topic Coronary Artery Disease.

Your doctor will want to closely monitor you after a heart attack. Be sure to keep all your appointments. Tell your doctor about any changes in your condition, such as changes in chest pain, weight gain or loss, shortness of breath with or without exercise, and feelings of depression.

About half of all people who have a heart attack will experience a serious complication. The kinds of complications you may have depend upon the location and extent of the heart muscle damage. The most common complications are:

  • Abnormal heart rhythms, called arrhythmias. These include life-threatening ventricular tachycardia, which is a rapid heart rate, and atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heartbeat.
  • Heart failure , which can be short-term or can become a lifelong condition.

Managing angina

You should notify your doctor about any chest pain or discomfort (angina) you have after a heart attack, because it will probably be treated more aggressively and may indicate that you are at risk for another heart attack. Many people have stable angina, which is predictable and diminishes after taking nitroglycerin (a medicine to control angina) and resting.

Nitroglycerin is often prescribed to be taken on an as-needed basis for angina. In most cases, you may take 1 nitroglycerin tablet or 1 dose if you use the spray form. If after 5 minutes the chest pain doesn't improve or gets worse, call 911 or other emergency services immediately. Stay on the phone with the emergency operator—he or she will give you further instructions.

See how to use nitroglycerin for sudden chest pain. Keep nitroglycerin with you at all times. Some doctors recommend that you use it before you exercise or exert yourself, to prevent an angina attack.

More information

Life After a Heart Attack

Coming home after a heart attack may be unsettling. Your hospital stay may have seemed too short. You may be nervous about being home without medical oversight after being so closely attended to in the hospital. But you have had tests that tell your doctor that it is safe for you to return home. Also, to reduce your risk of having another heart attack, your doctor may recommend that you:

  • Quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. Quitting smoking may be the most important step you can take to reduce your risk. Evidence suggests that the risk of death or recurrent heart attack is rapidly reduced for people with coronary artery disease who stop smoking. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
  • Be physically active. Talk with your doctor about exercising safely and about enrolling in a cardiac rehabilitation program. Regular exercise can help reduce your risk of another heart attack by helping you control cholesterol and blood pressure, regulate blood sugar (important for people with diabetes), and lose weight. See the Cardiac Rehabilitation topic. Before you start an exercise program or do any strenuous exercise, your doctor can do pre-exercise testing to find out your risk for heart attack. For more information, see the following:
    Click here to view an Actionset.Heart disease: Exercising for a healthy heart
  • Take an aspirin every day. If you have a stent, you may also take an antiplatelet medicine, such as clopidogrel (Plavix).
  • Lower your cholesterol by taking medicines such as statins or other lipid-lowering medicines. Lowering cholesterol can reduce the risk for another heart attack.
  • Control your blood pressure by taking medicines as directed by your doctor. Some nutrients in the diet can affect blood pressure. See nutrition for hypertension (including the DASH diet) for more information about this eating plan, which has been proved to lower blood pressure. Also see:
    Click here to view an Actionset.High blood pressure: Using the DASH diet.
  • Keep your blood sugar under control if you have diabetes. Having high blood sugar over a long period of time is linked with developing heart disease. The American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association recommend that people with diabetes have an hemoglobin A1c level of less than 7%.5
  • Follow a heart-healthy diet. A heart-healthy diet includes eating more fish. You may also follow the Mediterranean diet. A heart-healthy diet may help you lose weight, lower your blood pressure, and reduce your cholesterol. For more information, see:
    Click here to view an Actionset.Heart disease: Eating a heart-healthy diet.
  • Reduce stress. Stress management may lower rates of heart attack or death in people with coronary artery disease.
  • Participate in a cardiac rehabilitation program. You will learn how to exercise safely, change habits that put you at risk for another heart attack, and deal with stress and emotional issues. Studies have found that cardiac rehab reduces your risk of having another heart attack.
  • Avoid getting sick from the flu. Get a flu shot every year.
  • If you drink alcohol, drink moderately (1 alcoholic drink a day for women or 2 drinks a day for men). Drinking alcohol moderately, along with living a healthy lifestyle, may lower your risk for a heart attack or complications after a heart attack. Although studies show that wine may be beneficial, the link between wine and reduced coronary artery disease has not been proved. Ask your doctor about the benefits and risks of drinking alcoholic beverages.
  • Seek help for depression. Having a heart attack is scary, and depression afterward is common. Asking for and receiving support from friends and relatives can help you avoid depression. If you continue to feel depressed, talk to your doctor about counseling and medicine for depression. People who get treatment for depression may recover better after a heart attack than those who do not. For more information, see the topic Depression.
  • Resume sexual activity after a heart attack. One common myth is that resuming sex after a heart attack can cause another heart attack, stroke, or sudden death. According to the American Heart Association, people who have had heart attacks can resume sexual activity as soon as they feel ready for it. Talk with your doctor if you have any concerns. If you take a nitrate, like nitroglycerin, do not take erection-enhancing medicines. Combining these medicines can cause a life-threatening drop in blood pressure.
  • Seek help for sleep problems. Your doctor may want to check for sleep apnea, a common sleep problem in people with heart disease. For more information, see Sleep Apnea.

Most often the cause of a heart attack is coronary artery disease (CAD). Knowing what CAD is and how to treat it may help prevent a future heart attack. For more information, see the topic Coronary Artery Disease.

Medications

Medicines for unstable angina

Certain medicines can help keep blood from clotting, reduce the risk that unstable angina may develop into a heart attack, and decrease your chance of dying. These include:

  • Aspirin.
  • Antiplatelet medicines, such as clopidogrel (Plavix).
  • Anticoagulants, such as heparin, enoxaparin (Lovenox), dalteparin (Fragmin), and bivalirudin (Angiomax). Some anticoagulants, such as bivalirudin, are only used in the hospital.

Medicines that decrease the heart's workload, improve blood flow to the heart, and relieve chest pain are usually given to people with unstable angina who are at risk of heart attack. These medicines include:

  • Morphine.
  • Nitrates, such as nitroglycerin or isosorbide dinitrate (for example, Isordil).
  • Beta-blockers, such as carvedilol (Coreg) or metoprolol (for example, Lopressor).

In some cases, other medicines may be used, including:

Medicines for a heart attack in progress

Medicines for a heart attack work to open the blocked artery to restore blood flow as fast as possible and to decrease the workload on the heart.

Medicines after a heart attack

After a heart attack, your doctor may give you medicines to prevent heart failure and prevent or reduce the risk of irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), both of which can happen after a heart attack. These medicines include:

Your doctor may also give you medicines to prevent blood clots from forming and causing a stroke or another heart attack. These medicines include:

If you have high cholesterol, your doctor may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medicines called statins to prevent future heart attacks.

Nitrates may be used to control remaining angina symptoms.

Aldosterone receptor antagonists may be used to help your body get rid of extra salt and water. They are a type of diuretic.

What to Think About

Take all of your medicines correctly. Taking medicine can lower your risk of having another heart attack or dying from coronary artery disease.

Do not substitute nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, for example) or naproxen (such as Aleve), for aspirin. Although NSAIDS relieve pain and inflammation much like aspirin does, they may increase your risk for a heart attack or stroke.

If you had angioplasty and got a stent, you will take antiplatelet medicines to help prevent another heart attack or a stroke. You will probably take aspirin plus another antiplatelet such as clopidogrel (Plavix). If you get a drug-eluting stent, you will probably take both of these medicines for at least one year. If you get a bare metal stent, you will take both medicines for at least one month but maybe up to one year. Then you will likely take daily aspirin long-term. If you have a high risk of bleeding, your doctor may shorten the time you take these medicines.

Surgery

Coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG) may be done on an emergency basis to treat a heart attack.

Coronary artery bypass grafting, also called bypass surgery or "cabbage," may be needed when a heart attack cannot be safely and effectively treated with medicine or angioplasty. For example, bypass surgery may be done when there are blockages in the coronary arteries that cannot be reached during angioplasty or if angioplasty was tried but did not sufficiently widen the blood vessel. Also, bypass surgery is often recommended for people with diabetes.

What to Think About

If muscles holding the heart valve in proper position were damaged by the heart attack, heart valve repair or replacement may be done at the same time as a coronary artery bypass.

After a heart attack, or after you have had angioplasty or bypass surgery, you may be encouraged to participate in a cardiac rehabilitation program to help lower your risk of death related to heart disease. For more information, see the topic Cardiac Rehabilitation.

More information

Other Treatment

If your heart rate is too slow (bradycardia), your doctor may recommend a pacemaker.

If you have abnormal heart rhythms or if you are at risk for abnormal heart rhythms that are life-threatening, your doctor may recommend an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD).

For information about living with a pacemaker or ICD, see:

Click here to view an Actionset. Heart problems: Living with a pacemaker or ICD.

What to Think About

Try to follow a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise and a healthy diet instead of relying on vitamin supplements for nutrition and heart health. Talk with your doctor before taking any nutrition supplements. For example, you should probably not take folate therapy (a combination of folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12).

End-of-Life Decisions

Treatment for a heart attack is increasingly successful at prolonging life and reducing complications and hospitalization. But a heart attack can lead to progressive, fatal conditions, such as heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias). Many important end-of-life decisions can be made while you are active and able to communicate your wishes.

When you are diagnosed with a heart attack, your doctor will discuss treatment options with you. Your doctor may talk to you about your desire to be revived (resuscitated) if your heart stops pumping and you are unable to breathe on your own. You may want to learn more about aggressive life-sustaining medical treatment and whether it is right for you. For more information, see:

Click here to view a Decision Point. End-of-life care: Should I receive CPR and life support?

Many other decisions about end-of-life issues, such as writing a living will and estate planning, can be made in advance, leaving valuable time that can be spent with loved ones and on other important matters. For more information, see the topics Care at the End of Life and Writing an Advance Directive.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

American Heart Association (AHA)
7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX  75231
Phone: 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721)
Web Address: www.americanheart.org
 

Call the American Heart Association (AHA) to find your nearest local or state AHA group. AHA can provide brochures and information about support groups and community programs, including Mended Hearts, a nationwide organization whose members visit people with heart problems and provide information and support. AHA's Web site also has information on physical activity, diet, and various heart-related conditions.


HeartHub
Web Address: www.hearthub.org
 

HeartHub is a patient Web site from the American Heart Association. It provides patient-focused information, tools, and resources about heart diseases and stroke. The site helps you understand and manage your health. It includes online tools that explain your risks and treatment options. The site includes articles, the latest news in health and research, videos, interactive tools, forums and community groups, and e-newsletters.

The Web site includes health centers that cover heart rhythm problems, cardiac rehabilitation, caregivers, cholesterol, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, high blood pressure, peripheral artery disease, and stroke.

HeartHub also links to Heart360.org, another American Heart Association Web site. Heart360 is a tool that helps you send and receive medical information with your doctor. It also helps you monitor your health at home. It gives you access to tools to manage and monitor high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, physical activity, and nutrition.


National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD  20824-0105
Phone: (301) 592-8573
Fax: (240) 629-3246
TDD: (240) 629-3255
E-mail: nhlbiinfo@nhlbi.nih.gov
Web Address: www.nhlbi.nih.gov
 

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing and treating:

  • Diseases affecting the heart and circulation, such as heart attacks, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, peripheral artery disease, and heart problems present at birth (congenital heart diseases).
  • Diseases that affect the lungs, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, sleep apnea, and pneumonia.
  • Diseases that affect the blood, such as anemia, hemochromatosis, hemophilia, thalassemia, and von Willebrand disease.

National Institutes of Health Senior Health
9000 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD  20892
Phone: (301) 496-4000
E-mail: custserv@nlm.nih.gov
Web Address: www.NIHSeniorHealth.gov
 

This Web site for older adults offers aging-related health information. The Web site's senior-friendly features include large print, simple navigation, and short, easy-to-read segments of information. A visitor to this Web site can click special buttons to hear the text aloud, make the text larger, or turn on higher contrast for easier viewing.

The site was developed by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM), both part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIHSeniorHealth features up-to-date health information from NIH. Also, the American Geriatrics Society provides independent review of some of the material found on this Web site.


Women's Heart Foundation
Phone: (609) 771-9600
Fax: (609) 771-3778
E-mail: bonnie@womensheart.org
Web Address: www.womensheart.org
 

The Women's Heart Foundation provides education for women about preventing and treating heart disease. Information covers caregiving, exercise, nutrition, and medical and surgical treatments. The information focuses on the unique needs of women who have heart disease.


References

Citations

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  2. Stead LF, et al. (2008). Nicotine replacement therapy for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
  3. Hughes JR, et al. (2007). Antidepressants for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2).
  4. Rossouw JE, et al. (2007). Postmenopausal hormone therapy and risk of cardiovascular disease by age and years since menopause. JAMA, 297(13): 1465–1477.
  5. American Diabetes Association (2009). Standards of medical care in diabetes. Clinical Practice Recommendations 2009. Diabetes Care, 32(Suppl 1): S13–S61.

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Credits

Author Robin Parks, MS
Editor Kathleen M. Ariss, MS
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Caroline S. Rhoads, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer John A. McPherson, MD, FACC, FSCAI - Cardiology
Last Updated May 5, 2009

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