Heart attack is probably the most misunderstood medical term still regularly used. It represents different things to people with different levels of medical training. The lay public and the media use it interchangeably to mean both cardiac arrest -- which is often mistaken as a diagnosis when it wasn't supposed to be -- and an actual heart attack.
To make it as simple as possible, let me sum up: a heart attack happens when too little oxygen gets to an area of the heart, specifically an area of heart muscle. Eventually, the heart muscle will die -- not all of it, mind you, just the part that wasn't getting enough blood and oxygen. As the heart muscle dies, it gets weaker and can no longer pump blood efficiently. Sometimes during a heart attack the electrical system of the heart will go haywire and cause the heart to quiver uncontrollably, go too slow, go too fast, beat irregularly or malfunction in some other way.
All too often, the term heart attack is associated with sudden death. You can die from a heart attack, but you certainly don't have to. When folks refer to sudden death from a "heart attack" they are usually referring to sudden cardiac arrest, a term covered last month in First Aid Phraseology.
Heart attack is more of a lay term than a medical term. In medical parlance, a heart attack has traditionally been called an actue myocardial infarction (AMI), which refers to the end of the heart attack process. Heart attacks take a few minutes to progress to myocardial infarction and should be diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible. Since myocardial infarction is only part of a heart attack, the newest medical terminology is acute coronary syndrome (ACS), which encompasses the whole process.
Heart attacks have one symptom that is experienced by the majority of victims: pressure in the chest that travels to the left arm and sometimes to the jaw. There are a few other symptoms that can indicate a heart attack:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest palpitations
- Sudden onset of symptoms without exercise or stress
Of all the possible symptoms, however, chest pressure is the one most often described by victims. Heart attacks in women may feel differently than in men.
- Heart Attack Facts
- Heart Attack Myths
- Never Go to the Doctor's Office with Chest Pain
- Women and Heart Attacks
- The Difference Between a Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest
First Aid Phraseology is an occasional look at the common words and phrases used in first aid and emergency medical services. Have a term you'd like to know more about? Email me and I'll touch on it in a future post.
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