Acute myocardial infarction (Heart Attack)

Acute myocardial infarction (AMI or MI), more commonly known as a heart attack, is a medical condition that occurs when the blood supply to a part of the heart is interrupted, most commonly due to rupture of a vulnerable plaque. The resulting ischemia or oxygen shortage causes damage and potential death of heart tissue. It is a medical emergency, and the leading cause of death for both men and women all over the world. Important risk factors are a previous history of vascular disease such as atherosclerotic coronary heart disease and/or angina, a previous heart attack or stroke, any previous episodes of abnormal heart rhythms or syncope, older age—especially men over 40 and women over 50, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, the abuse of certain drugs, high triglyceride levels, high LDL ("Low-density lipoprotein") and low HDL ("High density lipoprotein"), diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and chronically high levels of stress in certain persons.

The term myocardial infarction is derived from myocardium (the heart muscle) and infarction (tissue death due to oxygen starvation). The phrase "heart attack" is sometimes used incorrectly to describe sudden cardiac death, which may or may not be the result of acute myocardial infarction.

Classical symptoms of acute myocardial infarction include chest pain (typically radiating to the left arm), shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, palpitations, sweating, and anxiety. Patients frequently feel suddenly ill. Women often experience different symptoms from men. The most common symptoms of MI in women include shortness of breath, weakness, and fatigue. Approximately one third of all myocardial infarctions are silent, without chest pain or other symptoms.

Immediate treatment for suspected acute myocardial infarction includes oxygen, aspirin, glyceryl trinitrate and pain relief, usually morphine sulfate. The patient will receive a number of diagnostic tests, such as an electrocardiogram (ECG, EKG), a chest X-ray and blood tests to detect elevated creatine kinase or troponin levels (these are chemical markers released by damaged tissues, especially the myocardium). Further treatment may include either medications to break down blood clots that block the blood flow to the heart, or mechanically restoring the flow by dilatation or bypass surgery of the blocked coronary artery. Coronary care unit admission allows rapid and safe treatment of complications such as abnormal heart rhythms.

Myocardial infarction is a common presentation of ischemic heart disease. The WHO estimated that in 2002, 12.6 percent of deaths worldwide were from ischemic heart disease. Ischemic heart disease is the leading cause of death in developed countries, but third to AIDS and lower respiratory infections in developing countries.

In the United States, diseases of the heart are the leading cause of death, causing a higher mortality than cancer (malignant neoplasms). Coronary heart disease is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths in the U.S.. Some 7,200,000 men and 6,000,000 women are living with some form of coronary heart disease. 1,200,000 people suffer a (new or recurrent) coronary attack every year, and about 40% of them die as a result of the attack.This means that roughly every 65 seconds, an American dies of a coronary event.

Risk factors

Risk factors for atherosclerosis are generally risk factors for myocardial infarction:
  • Older age
  • Male sex
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Hypercholesterolemia (more accurately hyperlipoproteinemia, especially high low density lipoprotein and low high density lipoprotein)
  • Hyperhomocysteinemia (high homocysteine, a toxic blood amino acid that is elevated when intakes of vitamins B2, B6, B12 and folic acid are insufficient)
  • Diabetes (with or without insulin resistance)
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity (defined by a body mass index of more than 30 kg/m², or alternatively by waist circumference or waist-hip ratio).

Acute myocardial infarction is a type of acute coronary syndrome, which is most frequently (but not always) a manifestation of coronary artery disease. The most common triggering event is the disruption of an atherosclerotic plaque in an epicardial coronary artery, which leads to a clotting cascade, sometimes resulting in total occlusion of the artery. Atherosclerosis is the gradual buildup of cholesterol and fibrous tissue in plaques in the wall of arteries (in this case, the coronary arteries), typically over decades. Blood stream column irregularities visible on angiographies reflect artery lumen narrowing as a result of decades of advancing atherosclerosis. Plaques can become unstable, rupture, and additionally promote a thrombus (blood clot) that occludes the artery; this can occur in minutes. When a severe enough plaque rupture occurs in the coronary vasculature, it leads to myocardial infarction (necrosis of downstream myocardium).

If impaired blood flow to the heart lasts long enough, it triggers a process called the ischemic cascade; the heart cells die (chiefly through necrosis) and do not grow back. A collagen scar forms in its place. Recent studies indicate that another form of cell death called apoptosis also plays a role in the process of tissue damage subsequent to myocardial infarction. As a result, the patient's heart can be permanently damaged. This scar tissue also puts the patient at risk for potentially life threatening arrhythmias.

Injured heart tissue conducts electrical impulses more slowly than normal heart tissue. The difference in conduction velocity between injured and uninjured tissue can trigger re-entry or a feedback loop that is believed to be the cause of many lethal arrhythmias. The most serious of these arrhythmias is ventricular fibrillation (V-Fib/VF), an extremely fast and chaotic heart rhythm that is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death. Another life threatening arrhythmia is ventricular tachycardia (V-Tach/VT), which may or may not cause sudden cardiac death. However, ventricular tachycardia usually results in rapid heart rates that prevent the heart from pumping blood effectively. Cardiac output and blood pressure may fall to dangerous levels, which is particularly bad for the patient experiencing acute myocardial infarction.

The cardiac defibrillator is a device that was specifically designed to terminate these potentially fatal arrhythmias. The device works by delivering an electrical shock to the patient in order to depolarize a critical mass of the heart muscle, in effect "rebooting" the heart. This therapy is time dependent, and the odds of successful defibrillation decline rapidly after the onset of cardiopulmonary arrest.


Heart attack rates are higher in association with intense exertion, be it psychological stress or physical exertion, especially if the exertion is more intense than the individual usually performs. Quantitatively, the period of intense exercise and subsequent recovery is associated with about a 6-fold higher myocardial infarction rate (compared with other more relaxed time frames) for people who are physically very fit.For those in poor physical condition, the rate differential is over 35-fold higher. One observed mechanism for this phenomenon is the increased arterial pulse pressure stretching and relaxation of arteries with each heart beat which, as has been observed with intravascular ultrasound, increases mechanical "shear stress" on atheromas and the likelihood of plaque rupture.

Acute severe infection, such as pneumonia, can trigger myocardial infarction. A more controversial link is that between Chlamydophila pneumoniae infection and atherosclerosis. While this intracellular organism has been demonstrated in atherosclerotic plaques, evidence is inconclusive as to whether it can be considered a causative factor. Treatment with antibiotics in patients with proven atherosclerosis has not demonstrated a decreased risk of heart attacks or other coronary vascular diseases.

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