Heart attacks are the primary cause of death in Canada, accounting for 20% of all fatalities and surpassing cancer as the foremost killer. The three primary contributors to heart attacks include elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and smoking.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies five factors that increase the risk of experiencing a heart attack. These include diabetes, being overweight or obese, maintaining an unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, and excessive alcohol consumption.
A heart attack takes place when an artery responsible for supplying blood and oxygen to the heart becomes obstructed. Over time, accumulations of fatty deposits containing cholesterol form plaques within the heart's arteries. If one of these plaques ruptures, it can lead to the formation of a blood clot, which has the potential to block arteries and result in a heart attack. Insufficient blood flow during a heart attack causes the heart muscle tissue to undergo necrosis.
Symptoms of a Heart Attack
The most prevalent symptom presents itself in various forms—some may feel pressure, while others experience burning or pinching sensations. These feelings can manifest during physical activity or at rest. If you notice any unusual sensations in your chest, it's imperative to promptly consult a doctor. It's worth noting that some individuals, especially women, may undergo a heart attack without experiencing chest discomfort.
An abrupt onset of unexplained fatigue could signal an impending heart attack. As arteries constrict, the heart works harder, making even simple tasks feel draining. This may lead to increased nighttime sleep or the need for multiple daytime naps.
Persistent Cold Symptoms
Persevering cold symptoms that resist resolution might indicate impending heart failure. As the heart struggles to supply the body with blood, it may lead to blood leaking back into the lungs. Pay attention to coughs producing white or pink mucus, a potential indication of blood leakage.
As the heart grapples with pumping blood throughout the body, veins can undergo swelling, leading to a bloated effect. The primary areas of swelling tend to be the feet, ankles, and legs, as they are farthest from the heart. Additionally, peripheral cyanosis may be observable, manifesting as a blue tinge in the lips or extremities.
When blood circulation is constrained due to a weakened heart, the brain may not receive an adequate supply of oxygen. This can result in persistent feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness, signifying a critical concern that warrants immediate medical attention.
Shortness of Breath
Another significant precursor to a heart attack is shortness of breath. The collaborative functioning of the heart and lungs means that as the heart's efficiency diminishes, the lungs struggle to receive the necessary oxygen. This leads to breathing difficulties and demands prompt medical intervention.
These symptoms may manifest up to a month before a potential heart attack, underscoring the importance of constant awareness. If you experience any singular symptom or a combination of them, it is crucial to promptly seek medical attention. Take control of your health and proactively safeguard yourself to the best of your ability.
The primary factor behind most heart attacks is coronary artery disease, where one or more coronary arteries are obstructed, typically by cholesterol-laden deposits known as plaques. These plaques have the potential to constrict the arteries, diminishing blood flow to the heart.
In the event of a plaque rupture, it can lead to the formation of a blood clot in the heart. A heart attack can result from either a complete or partial blockage of a coronary artery. Classification of heart attacks often involves assessing specific changes, such as ST elevation, on an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). These changes may necessitate immediate invasive treatment, and healthcare providers commonly refer to ECG results to characterize different types of heart attacks.
- The sudden and complete obstruction of a medium or large coronary artery typically indicates the occurrence of an ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI).
- A partial blockage frequently signifies a non-ST elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI). Nevertheless, it's important to note that some individuals diagnosed with non-ST elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI) may have a complete blockage.
Not all instances of heart attacks stem from blocked arteries. Other contributing factors include:
- Coronary artery spasm: This involves a severe constriction of a blood vessel that isn't necessarily obstructed. The artery may typically contain cholesterol plaques or exhibit early vessel hardening due to factors such as smoking or other risk factors. Alternative terms for coronary artery spasms include Prinzmetal's angina, vasospastic angina, or variant angina.
- Certain infections: Heart muscle damage can result from infections, including those caused by viruses such as COVID-19.
- Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD): This critical condition arises from a tear occurring inside a heart artery, posing a life-threatening risk.
Factors contributing to the risk of a heart attack encompass:
- Age: Men aged 45 and older and women aged 55 and older face a higher likelihood of experiencing a heart attack compared to their younger counterparts.
- Tobacco use: Both smoking and prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke increase the risk of a heart attack. Quitting smoking is advised.
- High blood pressure: Persistent high blood pressure can harm arteries leading to the heart. When coupled with conditions like obesity, high cholesterol, or diabetes, the risk is further elevated.
- High cholesterol or triglycerides: Elevated levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol) are prone to narrow arteries. Increased levels of triglycerides also contribute to the risk, while maintaining standard levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol ("good" cholesterol) may reduce the risk.
- Obesity: Obesity is associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, and reduced levels of HDL cholesterol.
- Diabetes: Elevated blood sugar, stemming from inadequate insulin production or utilization, heightens the risk of a heart attack.
- Metabolic syndrome: A combination of factors including central obesity, high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol, elevated triglycerides, and high blood sugar increases the likelihood of developing heart disease.
- Family history of heart attacks: If a close relative (parent, sibling, or grandparent) experiences an early heart attack, the individual may be at an increased risk.
- Insufficient exercise: A sedentary lifestyle is linked to a higher risk of heart attacks, while regular physical activity contributes to improved heart health.
- Unhealthy diet: Diets rich in sugars, animal fats, processed foods, trans fats, and salt elevate the risk of heart attacks. Conversely, a diet abundant in fruits, vegetables, fiber, and healthy oils is advisable.
- Stress: Emotional stress, particularly extreme anger, may increase the risk of a heart attack.
- Illegal drug use: Stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines have the potential to trigger coronary artery spasms, leading to a heart attack.
- History of preeclampsia: High blood pressure during pregnancy (preeclampsia) elevates the lifetime risk of heart disease.
- Autoimmune conditions: Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus can heighten the risk of a heart attack.
Home Remedies for Heart Pain
Home remedies are intended to address occasional chest pain resulting from digestive problems or muscle strain. Genuine heart pain may stem from angina, a critical condition arising when blood flow to the heart is diminished. If you're encountering heart pain and have received an angina diagnosis, adhere to your doctor's instructions regarding prescribed medications.
For immediate relief from chest pain arising from digestive issues or muscle strain, consider the following home remedies:
In instances where heart pain arises post-meal, acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may be the culprit, causing intense chest discomfort. Some individuals assert that consuming a handful of almonds or having almond milk when experiencing heartburn can alleviate symptoms. While this claim is largely anecdotal, there's insufficient scientific evidence to substantiate it.
Almonds, being alkaline, theoretically might help soothe and neutralize acid in the esophagus. However, it's worth noting that almonds are high in fat, which can trigger acid reflux in some individuals, as fatty foods may relax the lower esophageal sphincter, allowing acid to flow backward into the esophagus.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Another home remedy for acid reflux involves drinking a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with a glass of water before meals or during episodes of heart pain. Although there's limited scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of apple cider vinegar in relieving heartburn, many people attest to its effectiveness. For those with insufficient stomach acid production, apple cider vinegar might be helpful by increasing acid levels.
The acetic acid in apple cider vinegar, responsible for its tangy taste, could aid in breaking down food and supporting digestion. While apple cider vinegar generally doesn't cause side effects for most individuals, it has blood-thinning properties and should be used cautiously by those taking blood thinners.
Drinking a Hot Beverage
Chest pain frequently stems from gas-related issues. Consuming a hot or warm drink can potentially stimulate your digestive system, providing relief from gas and bloating. Hot hibiscus tea, in particular, is known to promote digestion and heart health. Research indicates that hibiscus can lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and decrease triglyceride levels. Hibiscus is generally considered safe for consumption.
Apply Cold Compresses
At times, chest pain may result from muscle strain in the chest. Activities such as weightlifting, a fall, or even carrying a child or a heavy laundry basket can be contributing factors. Severe chest pain may also arise from costochondritis, an inflammation of the chest wall. Applying a cold pack multiple times a day to the affected area can be beneficial in reducing inflammation and alleviating pain.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids offer several potential benefits for heart health, including the reduction of the risk of deadly heart arrhythmias, lowering triglyceride levels, slowing the progression of atherosclerosis, and decreasing blood pressure. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and albacore tuna are rich sources of omega-3s. If it's challenging to consume two servings of fish per week, fish oil supplements high in omega-3s can be taken as an alternative.
Incorporating pomegranate juice into your diet may be advantageous for your heart. Pomegranates are rich in antioxidants, which can help regulate cholesterol levels and maintain healthy arteries. Research suggests that pomegranate juice may decrease "bad" cholesterol (LDL) and inhibit plaque build-up in the arteries, potentially improving blood flow to the heart. Some studies indicate that pomegranate juice may also contribute to lowering blood pressure.
Capsaicin, the compound responsible for the spiciness in peppers, may have various heart-protective benefits. Studies indicate that capsaicin, when applied topically, can increase exercise time in individuals with angina, slow the development of atherosclerosis, reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome, lower blood pressure, control blood sugar, decrease the risk of heart muscle thickening, and support weight loss.
While much of the research has been conducted on rodents, human trials are needed. Current recommendations include around 20 milligrams of capsaicin capsules daily, along with incorporating spicy foods and hot sauce into the diet, bearing in mind that spicy foods may cause digestive issues for some individuals.
Both fresh garlic and garlic supplements have been utilized for years to combat heart problems. Research suggests that garlic extract may help prevent plaque build-up in the arteries and potentially reverse heart disease. While garlic is effective, its odor may be a drawback. Odor-free garlic capsules are available for those who find the smell unpleasant.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), crucial for heart health, is naturally produced by the body. Aging is associated with a decline in CoQ10 production, and low levels have been linked to chronic heart failure. CoQ10 may aid in lowering blood pressure and preventing exercise-induced chest pain.
Known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, ginger may help lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, lower triglycerides, and prevent blood clotting. However, individuals taking prescription blood thinners should avoid ginger due to its natural blood-thinning effects.
Derived from turmeric, curcumin may reduce inflammation associated with heart disease. Clinical trials suggest that curcumin can decrease total cholesterol and bad cholesterol while increasing good cholesterol, potentially preventing atherosclerosis.
Although not extensively studied for heart health, some individuals claim that alfalfa is effective in lowering cholesterol. A study on diabetic rats found that saponins in alfalfa extract reduced cholesterol and prevented the leaking of liver enzymes.
A popular Ayurvedic herb, holy basil, is known for its stress-relieving properties. It may also contribute to reducing cholesterol levels. Chronic stress has been linked to increased cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as an elevated risk of heart disease, especially when unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating or smoking are employed.
Complications arising from a heart attack often stem from damage to the heart muscle. Potential complications include:
- Irregular or atypical heart rhythms (arrhythmias): Heart attack damage can disrupt the normal movement of electrical signals in the heart, leading to changes in heartbeat patterns. Some arrhythmias can be severe and pose a risk of fatality.
- Cardiogenic shock: This uncommon condition occurs when the heart experiences a sudden and abrupt inability to effectively pump blood.
- Heart failure: Extensive damage to the heart muscle can impede its ability to pump blood, resulting in heart failure. This condition may be either temporary or long-lasting (chronic).
- Inflammation of the saclike tissue around the heart (pericarditis): Occasionally, a heart attack can trigger an aberrant immune system response, leading to conditions such as Dressler syndrome, postmyocardial infarction syndrome, or postcardiac injury syndrome.
- Cardiac arrest: Characterized by the abrupt cessation of the heart's activity, cardiac arrest occurs without warning. A sudden alteration in the heart's signaling, often prompted by a heart attack, increases the risk of this life-threatening condition. Without immediate intervention, it can result in death (sudden cardiac death).
It is never too late to adopt preventive measures against a heart attack, even if you have already experienced one. Here are strategies to prevent a heart attack:
Adopt a healthy lifestyle:
- Quit smoking: Eliminate tobacco use.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Follow a heart-healthy diet to achieve and sustain an optimal weight.
- Engage in regular exercise: Incorporate physical activity into your routine.
- Manage stress: Employ stress management techniques to promote overall well-being.
Manage other health conditions:
- Control high blood pressure and diabetes: Certain health conditions can heighten the risk of heart attacks. Regular checkups with your healthcare provider can help monitor and manage these conditions effectively.
Take supplements as directed:
- Follow supplement regimens: Adhere to the medication plan outlined by your healthcare provider to protect and enhance your heart health.
When to see a doctor
If you suspect a heart attack, dial 911 or your local emergency number immediately. If emergency medical services are not available, arrange for someone to drive you to the nearest hospital. Only consider driving yourself if there are no other viable options.
What to do if you see someone who might be having a heart attack
If you encounter an unconscious person whom you suspect is experiencing a heart attack, start by immediately calling 911 or your local emergency number. Then, assess whether the person is breathing and has a pulse. Only if there's no breathing or pulse should you initiate cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
If you lack CPR training, opt for hands-only CPR, involving vigorous and rapid chest compressions at a rate of about 100 to 120 compressions per minute. If you're trained in CPR and feel confident in your abilities, initiate 30 chest compressions before administering two rescue breaths.
Heart pain is a common experience for everyone, often stemming from digestive problems or strained muscles; however, it occasionally indicates a more serious condition. Given the difficulty in distinguishing between heart-related issues such as a heart attack or angina and discomfort caused by gas, it's essential to take any instance of heart pain seriously. Once you've established your normal pain patterns and your doctor has ruled out potential heart problems, trying out home remedies becomes a reasonable approach.