There is a killer that stalks our homes targeting smokers, the overweight and the sedentary. It has a preference for middle aged and older human beings. It is the heart attack. Coronary heart disease, including the heart attack is the leading cause of death in America (American Heart Foundation, 2008).

How does the heart work?

The heart is a muscular pump which transports blood throughout the body. To transport blood the heart needs a constant supply of energy which it obtains from glucose and oxygen in the blood. The heart has a left and right side, separated by a wall. The left side of the heart is responsible for pumping oxygenated blood which has collected in the left atrium around your body via the left ventricle and the right side of the heart collects the blood on its return from its journey around the body, pumps the blood into the lungs for oxygenation and then returns the blood to the left atrium for pumping around the body. The coronary artery is the main artery from the heart and sends blood throughout the body; it is approximately the width of a hosepipe.

Heart attack

A heart attack (myocardial infarction) occurs when a blood clot (coronary thrombosis or coronary occlusion) forms in the coronary artery and blocks the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart. The oxygen starved heart muscle is then damaged and unable to act as an efficient pump.

Heart attacks predominately occur in people who have coronary artery disease. Coronary artery disease results in narrowing of the arteries through the formation of plaque. When arteries are narrowed by plaque, it makes it difficult for blood to travel through the arteries and if a blood clot forms at the narrowed point, it can block the artery and cause a heart attack.

Symptoms of a heart attack

In the movies, a heart attack is portrayed by the actor clutching at their chest and then dropping down. This is not the case in real life, while chest pain is the most frequent and most easily recognised symptom of a heart attack – it is not the only symptom.

The symptoms of a heart attack include:

* pain, heaviness or discomfort in the chest behind the breastbone lasting for more than 10 to 15 minutes;
* pain radiating to other parts of the body including the jaw, arms, back and neck;
* the chest discomfort or pain being accompanied by nausea or sweating,
* a sudden onset of difficult breathing; and
* feeling unwell accompanied by any of the above symptoms.

A person having a heart attack will not usually faint however there are at an increased risk of having a cardiac arrest.

If you have had a previous heart attack, the pain will be similar to that heart attack. If you have angina, you may be having a heart attack if you have chest pain that is more severe than a standard angina attack.

It is vital that every person every where can identify the symptoms of a heart attack as more than a quarter of people who experience heart attack symptoms die within an hour of their first symptom (Australian Heart Foundation, 2008).

What can I do?

If you or someone around you experiences any of the symptoms of a heart attack, get the person to medical assistance immediately. The best way to achieve this is by calling for emergency services personnel, calling 911 in the United States or 000 in Australia.

Other steps you can take are to settle the patient in a quiet place, speak calmly to the patient, ask questions to try and get an understanding of their symptoms so that you can provide information to the emergency services.

Do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation – it is only useful when a person has a cardiac arrest and the heart stops beating. During a heart attack the heart remains beating however its pumping is compromised and inefficient.

A person can survive a heart attack and continue to live a long and fulfilling life provided that the symptoms of the heart attack are recognised early and appropriate treatment is obtained.

Author's Bio: 

Tracey Lloyd is the Principal of Vireo Health Promotions, a Brisbane, Queensland, Australia based health promotion and life coaching consultancy.