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Heart attack. The very words cause fear and apprehension. In the United States, almost 1.5 million heart attacks occur each year. But what is a heart attack, how can it be recognized, and what should you do if a heart attack strikes?

The medical term for heart attack is myocardial infarction (MI). The myocardium is the muscle part of the heart that generates the energy needed to pump blood to the body. Infarction is the term used to describe the death of a part of the body when there is a loss of the blood supply to that part. Myocardial infarction, therefore, refers to the death of some of the heart muscle due to an interruption in the blood flow to that part of the heart muscle.

Far and away the most common reason for MI is the formation of a blood clot inside one of the arteries that feed oxygen and nutrients to the heart muscle. In most cases, these blood clots start in a section of the artery that is abnormal due to hardening of the arteries. This area, called a plaque, represents atherosclerosis in the heart artery. That is, the artery that feeds blood to the heart develops atherosclerosis, usually over a period of years, but the actual heart attack begins when the body forms a blood clot on this area of atherosclerosis and the blood flow to the muscle is cut off. This accounts for the swift onset of heart attack in people with no previous symptoms of heart trouble.

It’s usually not difficult to recognize when someone is having a heart attack. Initially, they may complain of tightness, fullness or pressure in the chest. There may also be discomfort in the arms or neck. Difficulty breathing and sweating soon follow. There may also be dizziness, nausea or fainting. Although the pain may be very severe at the beginning, in most cases it takes several minutes for the pain to increase to an extreme. Some people confuse the discomfort in the chest with indigestion, although it is usually much more uncomfortable than indigestion. The pain of heart attack may last for hours, or even days, if untreated.

The most important thing to remember if you or someone you know may be having a heart attack is to get help immediately. People with these symptoms should go directly to the emergency room at the nearest hospital and get help. The emergency room staff will contact your doctor while ministering to you or your loved one. Remember, time is critical in the treatment of heart attack.

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