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After the Heart Attack


After you or a loved one has had a heart attack, your mind is likely to be full of questions-and probably a lot of worry too. Why did this happen to you, you may wonder. What should you do now? Will you feel "normal" again? Will you ever be able to get rid of the fear that you'll have a heart attack again?

A heart attack happens when blood flow to your heart is severely limited or completely cut off. The passageways in the arteries that supply the blood to your heart become smaller as cholesterol and other fats build up inside them. Sometimes, this fatty material breaks off and forms a blood clot, which is what causes the blockage of blood supply to the heart.

There are people who have a heart attack without ever having felt any symptoms beforehand-no chest pain at all, for example, and no shortness of breath. This can happen because sometimes, vessels in the same vicinity will expand to help make up for the lack of blood that's flowing to the heart in the narrowed arteries. This is called "collateral circulation." Collateral circulation can help prevent a heart attack for a while-in some people in can help for a very long while-but most of the time, eventually the collateral circulation isn't enough, and heart attack does occur.

After the heart attack, how will the health of my heart be affected?

The extent of the damage a heart attack causes depends on the size of the part of the heart that the blocked artery delivered blood to. It also depends on the amount of time that goes by from the time the heart attack began to the time you began to get treatment. The damaged area is not able to repair itself, and that's why it's important to get treatment for a heart attack as soon as symptoms begin.

After the attack, scar tissue begins to form, and that tissue will not contract and pump as well as the other tissue of the heart. The rest of your heart will keep working, however. Most people recover from a heart attack after about 6 to 8 weeks.

How should I take care of myself after my heart attack?

Your doctor and other members of your healthcare team can help you design a recovery program that will meet the needs of your specific situation. But as a rule, life after a heart attack focuses first on recovery and then on prevention of a second attack. The following is generally true for people who are recovering from their first heart attack:

  • A healthy, balanced combination of rest and daily activity is important. Most of the time, after you've rested as long as your doctor has recommended, you'll probably be asked to engage in more physical activity than you did before. Your doctor or other members of your healthcare team are also likely to stress to you that it's important to socialize with the people you enjoy and, in general, to "get out there" and take part in what life has to offer. It's also important, though, not go get overtired. And if you do begin to feel tired, be sure to stop and rest.

  • Taking part actively in cardiac rehabilitation will help your recovery. (For more information, read the article, "What Can Cardiac Rehab do for You?")

  • Don't be surprised if you're on an emotional roller coaster for a while. It's extremely common for people who've had a heart attack to experience depression, anger, sadness and fear. It's hard to accept that your body has undergone this serious problem. You may become angry with others easily, even when they're trying to help. Ups and downs are normal, but if you lose your appetite, find it difficult to sleep, feel no interest in life or if you consider suicide, be sure to get professional treatment.

  • Accept help and support from your family and friends. They're concerned and worried. Let them help you with a new healthy eating plan, a new exercise regimen or however else they want to be involved. It's also a good idea to tell them how you're feeling emotionally. This closeness can help with your recovery.

  • Stick with the medication regimen your doctor has prescribed. Life after a heart attack is likely to include medication. Your doctor might have prescribed a statin to lower your cholesterol and/or a medication to bring down your blood pressure. Be sure to take your medication, and if you have any side effects, talk with your doctor about ways to handle them.

    After you've had a heart attack, it's common to become worried that any little pain will lead to yet another heart attack. Eventually, you'll get used to the idea that you've had one heart attack and that you won't necessarily have another one. On the other hand, be sure to call your doctor if you experience the signs of a heart attack.

    Heart attack warning signs

  • Chest pain
  • Pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness

    American Heart Association; The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
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