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Heart Attack (MI)

What is a Heart Attack?

Possible Problems after a Heart Attack

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack, or MI (myocardial infarction) usually causes pain in the centre of the chest. The pain usually feels like a heaviness or tightness which may also spread to the arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach. Alternatively, it may affect only the neck, jaw, arms or stomach.  A person having a heart attack may also sweat, feel light-headed, feel sick, or be short of breath.

However, a heart attack is sometimes 'silent' and produces little discomfort. You may not even know you have had one until you have a medical investigation for other symptoms or a routine medical examination.

An MI occurs when an artery (a blood vessel known as a coronary artery) supplying blood to the heart muscle is suddenly blocked.  Usually this artery has been narrowed and finally blocks when a blood clot forms on top of the narrowed area.  When the blood supply to an area of heart muscle is cut off in this way,  the muscle dies and is replaced by scar tissue.  The modern treatment for a heart attack involves giving a clot dissolving drug (a thrombolytic or "clot buster" such as streptokinase or TPA) to try and re-open the blocked artery.  The aim is to get the blood supply back to the injured area of the heart muscle as soon as possible, and to minimize the size of the damaged area of the heart muscle. 

This means it is important to get help quickly if you think an MI is taking place.  There is information on getting help quickly in the "what to do in an emergency" section.

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Possible Problems after a Heart Attack

If you have had a heart attack there are 3 main problems you may experience:

  • Any narrow parts still left in the coronary arteries can cause chest discomfort ("angina") or, if another blockage occurs, another heart attack can result.  You may also get further narrowing in the coronary arteries.
  • If you have had a lot of heart muscle damaged then you could get breathlessness, swollen ankles and fatigue ("heart failure")
  • Damage to the heart can also lead to changes in the rhythm of the heart i.e. the heart may beat too fast or too slow or even stop suddenly (a "cardiac arrest").

But the good news is that you can improve your chances of not running into problems by making positive changes to your lifestyle and taking the medicines prescribed to you.   

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