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Heart Attacks: What You Need to Know

About every 43 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack. That means each year, approximately a million people have a heart attack in the United States alone and about half of them die. In fact, about one-half of those who die do so within 1 hour of the start of symptoms before reaching a hospital.

Emergency personnel can often stop arrhythmias with emergency CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), defibrillation (electrical shock), and prompt advanced cardiac life support procedures. If care is sought soon enough, blood flow in the blocked artery can be restored in time to prevent permanent damage to the heart. Yet, most people do not seek medical care for 2 hours or more after symptoms begin. Many people wait 12 hours or longer.

What causes a heart attack?

Heart attacks are caused by a blockage that stops blood flow to the heart. A heart attack (or myocardial infarction) refers to death of heart muscle tissue due to the loss of blood supply, not necessarily resulting in the death of the heart attack victim.

Your heart muscle needs oxygen to survive. A heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely. This happens because coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood flow can slowly become narrow from a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances that together are called plaque. When a plaque in a heart artery breaks, a blood clot forms around the plaque. This blood clot can block the blood flow through the heart muscle. When the heart muscle is starved for oxygen and nutrients, it is called ischemia. When damage or death of part of the heart muscle occurs as a result of ischemia, it is called a heart attack or myocardial infarction (MI).


How is a Heart Attack Diagnosed?

Diagnosis and treatment of a heart attack can begin when emergency medical personnel arrive after you call 9-1-1. But, many people put off calling 9-1-1 because they are not sure they are having a heart attack.

At the hospital emergency room, doctors will work fast to find out if you are having or have had a heart attack. They will consider your symptoms, medical and family history, and test results. Initial tests such as an Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) and blood tests (Troponin, CK-MB test) or Myoglobin test) will be quickly followed by treatment if you are having a heart attack. Depending on the results of these tests you would likely proceed to do the following: a nuclear heart scan, cardiac catheterization, or coronary angiography.

How can you reduce damage?

Promptly receiving aid from a medical professional is the best way to prevent permanent damage. The only way to ensure that there is no irreparable damage is through restoring the blood flow to the blocked artery within a timely manner. For example, drugs must be administered within one or two hours of the heart attack to decrease the amount of damage done.

There are some over the counter drugs that have also been shown to have positive side effects such as Aspin and other anti-platelets, and Thrombolytic therapy; however, these are not a supplement for medical care.

So what can you do?

At the moment the best that you can do is know all of the major symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Upper body pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or upper stomach.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Nausea lightheadedness, or cold sweats.

In a survey reported by the CDC only 27% of people were aware of all major symptoms and knew to call for medical help when someone was having a heart attack.

The Good News

We are working on a project with Dr. Henry Wu, a physician scientist and practicing cardiologist in New York City, to change all of that.

Welcome to Watson MD, an artificial intelligence app tool based on IBM Watson to help estimate the risk of a heart attack based on the characteristics of a person’s chest pain and “risk” profile.

Our mission is to help improve the chance of surviving a heart attack and guide patients with chest pain toward a diagnosis.