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Heart attacks: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read
Close-up of a person with both hands clasped on chest.

According to research by the British Heart Foundation, one person is admitted to hospital in the UK every 5 minutes experiencing a heart attack. A heart attack is a serious medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention and specialist care. In this article, we explore the underlying causes and risk factors that can lead to a heart attack. We’ll outline what symptoms to look out for, what to do if you suspect a heart attack, and what you can do to help lower your risk of experiencing a heart attack.  

What causes a heart attack?

A heart attack happens when the blood supply to the heart is suddenly disrupted. This disruption leads to the heart muscles becoming damaged and not being able to function properly. The longer the blood supply is affected, a greater proportion of the muscles are impacted, and cardiac arrest (the heart stopping) can occur.  

There are different reasons that the heart’s blood supply can be compromised. A leading factor in heart attacks is coronary heart disease (CHD). CHD is a condition caused by a fatty substance called cholesterol clogging the arteries, making it difficult for blood to travel freely around the body. These cholesterol deposits can lead to blood clots and trigger a heart attack as the blood supply to the heart is blocked.  

Another cause of heart attacks, although less common than CHD, is the use of illicit drugs such as cocaine and other stimulant drugs. These can cause the arteries to narrow, leading to restricted blood flow and increased likelihood of a heart attack.  

Restricted oxygen supply in the blood (hypoxia) is another cause of heart attacks. A lack of oxygen to the heart can lead to tissue damage and a potential heart attack.  

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack in both men and women. This pain can take different forms such as pressure across the chest area, or a tight, heavy, or squeezing sensation. This pain can then spread to other parts of the body including the arms (most commonly the left arm), back, tummy, neck, and jaw.  

Other symptoms include sweating, severe anxiety, light-headedness, difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, and feeling or being sick.  

How is a heart attack treated?

It’s critical to get emergency medical care as soon as you suspect a heart attack. Dial 999 and follow the advisor’s instructions as they dispatch an ambulance.  

If you are admitted to hospital with a suspected heart attack, doctors will likely run tests to determine the type of heart attack you’ve had and what has caused it. From here, they will be able to explore the best possible treatment options. Medication may be prescribed to help thin the blood and reduce the risk of clots. In more severe cases, a surgical procedure may be required. This can include what’s known as coronary angioplasty, where a supporting structure called a stent is inserted to keep the affected artery wide enough to function normally. If this isn’t possible, a coronary artery bypass graft might be considered.  

What can I do to improve my heart health? 

Like with a range of health conditions, there are steps you can take to manage risk factors and promote good heart health. The NHS recommends different activities and lifestyle changes that can help to prevent a heart attack.  

A healthy, balanced diet 

What we eat plays a big part in our overall health and wellbeing. Try to limit foods high in saturated fat and opt for unprocessed, home-cooked meals with plenty of vegetables. A Mediterranean-style diet is suggested by the NHS for heart health and includes fish, vegetables, bread, and salad, as well as vegetable and plant oils as a substitute for animal products like butter. If you’re prone to high blood pressure, a reduced-salt diet is also advised. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, aiming for the suggested 6-8 glasses.  

Help to stop smoking 

If you’re a smoker, find details about support to quit on the NHS website. As well as reducing the risk of heart conditions, quitting smoking also lowers your chances of developing other serious illnesses including lung conditions, diabetes, and numerous cancers.  

Keeping active 

30 minutes of moderate exercise daily has a significant impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. Low-impact activities including walking and swimming are recommended if you have known heart issues. Have a read of our article that explores simple ways to get active for advice and inspiration.