How is a heart attack treated?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner
Your treatment options will vary based on the nature of your heart attack. Chewing an aspirin and calling an ambulance are actions you should take the second you suspect you're experiencing a heart attack. Aspirin thins the blood, which can help with your blood clot. Once at the hospital, the medical staff may give you a beta blocker or nitroglycerin. These substances make the heart beat less quickly, which releases some of the stress on the heart muscle. They may also prescribe a blood thinner or blood clot buster to help with clotting. If your condition is severe, you may need immediate surgery.
How a heart attack is treated varies widely based on several things -- what part of the heart is being damaged, how large the area is, and how quickly the person is diagnosed or comes to the hospital to be evaluated. Treatments can include management with oral or IV medications all the way to surgical interventions, depending on the factors listed above.

During a heart attack, the immediate goal is to minimize heart damage by restoring blood flow to the heart as quickly as possible. Later on, treatment can help your heart heal, make it easier for your heart to pump blood, and reduce your cardiac risk factors.

Early treatments during and right after heart attack:

  • Defibrillation, to correct the fast, chaotic heartbeat that can happen in a heart attack. Defibrillators use powerful electrical signals to shock the heart back into a normal rhythm.
  • Oxygen, to make oxygen readily available to the tissues of the body and reduce the workload of the heart.
  • Thrombolytic therapy -- "clot busting" medication that dissolves blood clots and restores blood flow through the coronary arteries.
  • Emergency angioplasty or stent placement can also open up a blocked coronary artery. Angioplasty works by compressing the plaque that blocks a coronary artery. This widens the passage and improves blood flow to the heart. In many cases, a stent (a tiny tube) is inserted to hold the artery open.

Other treatments for heart attack patients:

  • Medication to treat symptoms, control cardiac risk factors, and ease the heart's workload. (If a stent was placed in an artery, medication may also be used to prevent clotting in or around the stent.) Be sure to take medications as directed, and continue to take them until your doctor tells you to stop.
  • Cardiac rehab, consisting of education, supervised exercise, and social and emotional support, helps you recover faster, reduce your cardiac risk factors, and return to a full and productive life.
  • Ongoing lifestyle management such as regular exercise, a healthy diet, weight management, stress reduction, and quitting smoking -- to help you prevent further heart attacks.
  • And, if necessary, ath lab procedures (such as angioplasty or stent placement) or heart surgery to open or bypass narrowed arteries and improve blood flow to your heart muscle.

Approximately 1.2 million Americans will suffer a heart attack this year. However, teams are available at hospitals to treat heart attacks quickly and effectively.

If you think you are having a heart attack, the first team to arrive will be emergency medical services (EMS). They will perform a 12-lead electrocardiogram (EKG), which will show if you are actually having a heart attack. If you are, EMS will notify the emergency department at the nearest hospital, activating its acute heart attack team.

The national goal is to treat heart attacks in the catheterization lab within 90 minutes of arrival at the hospital. That's why it's so important that the team is ready in advance. The minute you arrive in the emergency department, you'll be transported to the cardiac catheterization lab. If you do in fact have a blockage, doctors will open that blockage up with balloons and place a stent to restore blood supply to your heart. Early restoration of blood supply results in decreased heart attack size, improved heart function and improved survival.

The definitive treatment  for heart attack is to rid the heart arteries of blockages so that more blood is flowing to the heart muscle.  One option is to treat the blockages from the inside of the arteries.  A small balloon is inflated in the artery at the site of the blockage. When inflated, it presses the plaque against the walls of the artery.  This makes the opening of the artery larger and allows more blood to flow.  This is then followed by placing a stent (a hollow metal tube) into the artery at that site.  The stent helps to keep the artery open. 

Another option to treat a heart attack is with coronary artery bypass surgery which bypasses the blockages by using other arteries or veins to deliver blood past the area of blockage.   A heart attack may also be treated using medicines, but medications alone cannot rid the arteries of blockages.  Instead, medications are used to treat the symptoms, such as chest pain, by slowing the heart rate and decreasing the blood pressure so the heart does not work as hard.  Other medications can be given to temporarily widen the heart arteries to allow for more blood flow.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.