Why did my heart attack happen?
Your heart is made of muscle. Its most important job is to pump blood to all parts of your body to provide adequate supplies of oxygen. It also supplies blood to its own muscle. It does this through a network of very small pipes called coronary arteries. If one of these arteries becomes partly or completely blocked, the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen and this causes a heart attack (you will sometimes hear this called a myocardial infarction or an MI).
The usual symptoms of a heart attack are a severe crushing chest pain going into your left arm or jaw, sometimes with breathlessness and sweating.
How common is a heart attack and how can I prevent another one?
Heart attacks are very common and are more likely to occur in men than in women. Figures from the 2006 Health Survey for England suggest that 4% of men and 0.5% of women have had a heart attack.
It is important to look at the reasons (risk factors) that caused you to have a heart attack. The main risk factors are smoking, high blood pressure, lack of exercise, stress, eating too much fat and being overweight. Preventing another heart attack will depend on how you and your doctor can control these risk factors. These were part of your old lifestyle, which must now change.
How can I change my lifestyle?
By changing your lifestyle you will be able to speed up your recovery and protect your future life. If you smoke you should try to stop; this will reduce your chances of having another heart attack.
You will also need to change your dietary habits. You should try to cut down the amount of fat, red meat, sugar and salt that you eat, and increase your intake of foods containing fibre, such as fresh fruit, vegetables, wholemeal bread, pulses (eg, lentils, split peas) and pasta. Eating oily fish (eg, herring, kippers, salmon, trout) once or twice a week may prevent clots forming in your coronary arteries.
You should drink very little alcohol in the first few months after your heart attack. You do not need to stop drinking completely unless your doctor advises you to. However, your daily intake of alcohol should not exceed more than one or two units (one unit = half a glass of wine [76mL], half a pint of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider [3–4%] or a single measure of spirits [25ml]) and you should have some alcohol-free days. You should limit your weekly intake to 14 units or less.
You should also try to avoid stressful situations. Your doctor or nurse will be able to give you advice about relaxation techniques. Moderate exercise such as gentle walking and swimming is generally considered safe. Gradually you will be able to resume a normal sex life and after about four to six weeks you will be able to start driving, as long as your doctor is satisfied with your progress.
What treatments are available?
Your doctor will decide on the best treatment to help lower your cholesterol levels and blood pressure, if these are high. You may be prescribed several different medicines, but do not worry, this is not unusual. It is important that you remember to take these medicines exactly as prescribed by your doctor.
How often will I need to see my doctor?
You will probably see the specialist at your hospital as an outpatient about three months after you leave hospital. The specialist may arrange for you to have an ultrasound scan or x-ray to see if you will need further treatment.
You will need to see your own GP regularly so that he or she can check your blood pressure, monitor your cholesterol level, discuss the medicines that you need and to discuss lifestyle changes and how long you should stay off work.
After you have returned to work it is likely that you will see your GP once or twice a year to make sure that you have recovered as much as possible.
- Stop smoking
- Eat a healthy diet
- Cut down on fat, red meat, sugar and salt
- Eat oily fish once or twice a week
- Increase the amount of fibre in your diet
- Take regular gentle exercise
- Practise relaxation techniques
- Avoid heavy drinking
- Have your blood pressure and cholesterol checked regularly
- Take all medicines exactly as prescribed by your doctor and do not share them with anyone else
Further information available from:
British Heart Foundation
Greater London House
180 Hampstead Road
London NW1 7AW
Tel: 020 7554 0000
Heart Help Line: 0300 330 3311 (Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm)
Fact sheet provided by MIMS
Date last reviewed: January 2009