Causes of a heart attack
A heart attack is when part of the heart muscle dies because it has been starved of oxygen.
A common type of heart attack happens when a blood clot forms in one of the coronary arteries (the blood vessels that lead to the heart muscle) and restricts the flow of blood to the heart.
Sudden narrowing of the coronary artery, known as coronary thrombosis, can also cause a heart attack.
Some people who have a heart attack will also have a cardiac arrest, which means that the heart has stopped pumping blood around the body effectively. Someone in cardiac arrest will stop breathing and collapse. They will not have a pulse and need help as soon as possible, or they will die.
(This information is provided by kind permission of the British Heart Foundation, with whom we work closely on heart-related issues.)
Symptoms of a heart attack
No two heart attacks are the same. Symptoms can range from feeling generally unwell to severe chest pain. In many cases chest pain or tightness is accompanied by a range of other symptoms.
The most common symptoms of heart attack are:
- Central chest pain which can spread to the arms, neck or jaw.
- Feeling sick or sweaty as well as having central chest pain.
- Feeling short of breath as well as having central chest pain.
Symptoms vary and some people may feel any of the following:
- A dull pain, ache, or ‘heavy’ feeling in the chest.
- A mild discomfort in the chest that makes you feel generally unwell.
- A pain in the chest that can spread to the back or stomach.
- A chest pain that feels like bad indigestion.
- Feeling light-headed or dizzy as well as having chest pain.
The pain can last from five minutes to several hours. Moving around, changing your position or resting will not stop or ease the pain. The pain may be constant or it may come and go. It may feel like pressure, squeezing or ‘fullness’.
If you think that you, or someone you know is suffering from a heart attack you need to call 999 for an ambulance immediately.
(This information is provided by kind permission of the British Heart Foundation, who we work closely with on heart-related issues.)
Heart attack treatment
What the ambulance crew will do
If we believe you are having a heart attack, we will try to reach you as quickly as possible.
When our staff arrive, they will assess you and may give you some drugs to relieve the pain.
In particular, our staff should:
- offer you aspirin so your blood flows more easily through your blocked artery
- offer to spray glyceryl trinitrate under your tongue to improve blood flow to the heart
- ask you about your pain levels before and after any treatment using the Wong-Baker faces pain rating scale
- offer you pain relief.
Unlike many ambulance services in the UK, our staff are trained to diagnose a heart attack using a piece of equipment called a 12-lead electrocardiogram (ECG).
Using the 12-lead ECG, which records the activity of your heart, our staff will diagnose whether you are having a common type of heart attack, often called an ST-elevated myocardial infarction.
If we find that you are having a heart attack, we will immediately take you for specialist hospital treatment.
Your treatment in hospital
An expert team at the heart attack centre will run a number of tests on you. If you are definitely suffering from a heart attack, you will be admitted for an emergency heart operation called primary angioplasty.
Angioplasty is a procedure where a catheter is inserted into your artery and a small balloon then inflated to open the blockage. A small tube called a stent is inserted to keep the artery open. Angioplasty is recognised as the best possible treatment for a heart attack, and is successful in restoring blood flow to the heart in 95 per cent of cases.
Most patients undergoing primary angioplasty leave hospital within three days.
In most of the rest of the UK, heart attack patients are treated with thrombolysis, where they are given a clot-busting drug to remove the blockage from the artery. Thrombolysis is successful in 65 per cent of cases.
Real life: Paul's story
Paul Le Vesconte had a pioneering treatment called primary angioplasty at King’s College Hospital after he had a heart attack. Read more.
Real life: Mark's story
Mark Hollet, 40, had just dropped off a fare from his black cab one evening in December when he began to experience severe chest pain and dialled 999 for an ambulance. Read more.