Recovering From a Heart Attack

A heart attack is a medical emergency from which it can take a while to recover. Individuals who are at risk of a heart attack will be able to cope with it better if they know what to expect and how they can help during the rehabilitation process.

What is a heart attack?

When one of the arteries supplying blood to the heart (called coronary arteries) becomes blocked by plaque that has broken free from the lining of the blood vessel, it can form a clot. This causes oxygen deprivation in the heart muscles and leads to tissue death in certain parts. The event that results is called a heart attack.

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Severe chest pain or pressure
  • Nausea, heartburn, or indigestion
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Cold sweats

A heart attack is a life-threatening emergency. If you or someone around you is having symptoms of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately. Do not drive yourself to the hospital, rather stay with someone while you wait for an ambulance to come. If someone loses consciousness during this time and you are trained in CPR, administer compressions only until help arrives or you are too tired to continue. The sooner a heart attack victim receives advanced medical care, the better their outcomes will be.

How is a heart attack treated?

The ambulance crew will begin to treat you on the way to the hospital. They will perform an initial ECG, start an IV, provide medicine, and probably give you oxygen. If you need life-saving measures, such as a defibrillator, ambulance staff can provide that while in transit to the hospital.

When you get to the hospital, the medical team will examine you, draw blood, and run tests on your heart to determine the extent of the injury. This will also help them determine the best treatment options for you.

You may receive "clot-busting" drugs, which break up blood clots that may be blocking the arteries in your heart and causing your heart attack.

You may be sent for an angiogram, a heart scan that looks at the blood flow in your coronary arteries. During the angiogram, they may perform a percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) which will open the arteries in your heart and restore the blood flow. They may also place a stent into the blocked blood vessel to keep it open.

Depending on the results of the angiogram, the doctor may determine you need a surgery known as a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG), also known as bypass surgery.

What can I expect after a heart attack?

It may take several weeks to several months to recover completely after a heart attack. The recovery time depends on how healthy you were before the heart attack, your risk factors (age, smoking and drinking status, etc.), and how well you follow your discharge instructions.

You may feel physically and mentally fatigued for several weeks after a heart attack. You may also have a decreased appetite or feelings of depression, anger, sadness, or hopelessness.

Your doctor may recommend you refrain from some of the activities you were doing before the heart attack. Doctors may also advise you to slowly build up your activity level to increase your heart's strength gradually.

Providers may also tell you to start eating a heart-healthy diet. You may also be prescribed medications that control your blood pressure and prevent another heart attack.

The doctor may also want you to go to cardiac rehabilitation. A good cardiac rehabilitation program can help you safely increase your activity level, learn to eat healthier, and undergo counseling for stress management. They can also help you learn about your new medications and how to take them safely.

What complications could I have after a heart attack?

A heart attack is a serious condition and, even with proper treatment, complications can arise. Complications that might result from a heart attack include:

  • Heart arrhythmias: the electrical signals in your heart are disrupted due to the damage from the heart attack
  • Sudden cardiac arrest: your heart stops beating suddenly due to a disruption in its electrical system
  • Heart failure: damage to the heart prevents this organ from pumping as effectively as it used to

How can I prevent another heart attack?

Doctor’s recommendations for treatment of a heart attack are similar to their recommendations for preventing a heart attack:

  1. Eat a heart-healthy diet, including vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and whole grains. Avoid food that is high in sodium and do not add extra salt to your food.
  2. Take blood pressure and cholesterol medications if they have been prescribed by your doctor.
  3. Stop smoking.
  4. Go to all your medical appointments.
  5. Exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes between 3 and 4 days each week. If you are starting an exercise program after a heart attack, start slowly and work your way up to 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Always ask your doctor before starting any new or unfamiliar exercise.

Summary

A heart attack is a life-threatening emergency. If you or someone near you is having symptoms of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately. Stay with the person until help arrives. If the person is unconscious and you know how to administer CPR, do chest compressions until the ambulance arrives or until you are too tired to continue. Recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack and getting medical help as quickly as possible are the first steps to optimizing your chances of a full recovery.

Recovering from a heart attack can be a long process, but it helps to know what to expect and follow your doctor's orders to obtain the best outcomes.

Resources:

American Heart Association. (2017). Treatment of a Heart Attack | American Heart Association

American Heart Association. (2018). American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids | American Heart Association

American Heart Association. (2022). What is CPR | American Heart Association CPR & First Aid

Cardiac Health. Heart Healthy Exercise | Cardiac Health

CDC. (2021). Heart Attack Symptoms, Risk, and Recovery | cdc.gov

Cherney, Christeen. (2020). Heart Attack Recovery: Duration, Diet, and More (healthline.com)

National Institute on Aging. (2019). What Is a Heart Attack? | National Institute on Aging (nih.gov)

Mayo Clinic. (2022). Heart attack - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic. (2021). Heart-healthy diet: 8 steps to prevent heart disease - Mayo Clinic

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