ZocdocAnswersHow does a heart attack affect the body?

Question

How does a heart attack affect the body?

Just curious, if someone has a heart attack and survives, can they go on to live a normal, active life. My dad recently had one, he?s recovering now. Will he ever return to his old self?

Answer

A heart attack is a serious medical problem, but the severity of heart attacks varies widely. The answer to your question really depends on the severity of your father's heart attack, any complications he had at the time of the heart attack, how well his heart is functioning now, and how healthy he is otherwise. The best step to take in order to get specific information about your father's chances of a full recovery would be to visit a cardiologist with your father. Cardiologists specialize in caring for patients with heart disease and are experts at evaluating cardiac risk, heart health, and prognosis after a heart attack. That said, I can provide you with some general information about what happens to the body during and after a heart attack. Heart attacks are caused by coronary artery disease, the medical term for narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. The narrowing of the arteries is caused by formation of a plaque on the lining of the artery (called atherosclerosis). Sometimes these plaques can become damaged or partially break away, which causes a clot to form and totally blocks the artery. When the artery is totally blocked, the region of the heart muscle that depends on that artery is deprived of blood and, without the oxygen that the blood carries, the heart muscle begins to die. The amount of heart muscle that dies is dependent on many factors, including the location, severity, and duration of the blockage. The amount of heart muscle that is damaged is the major determinant of how severe the heart attack is, what complications will develop, and how the heart will function afterwards. In mild heart attacks, very little or no heart muscle is dies, and typically no complications develop while the patient is having the heart attack. If there is a small area where muscle dies, scar tissue forms over the course of several weeks and replaces the dead muscle. After a mild heart attack, the heart usually functions normally afterwards and the patient makes a full recovery. For practical purposes, lets talk about a "moderate to severe" heart attack, although this is not really a medical or scientific classification. In this case, more heart muscle dies and occasionally patients can have problems with the function of their heart during or after the heart attack. Patients are more likely to suffer complications if they have other coexisting medical problems. If the heart does not function well, it cannot pump blood effectively to the body. This can cause low blood pressure, problems with exercise tolerance, and can even limit patients' ability to perform basic daily activities. This is termed heart failure and it may improve over time and with medical therapy, or it may be permanent. It generally takes much longer to recover from a moderate or severe heart attack. Most patients require medication and rehabilitation. Some people make a full recovery over time, but some have lasting problems with their heart function. Very severe heart attacks result in life-threatening illness, complications, and even death. When a large area of the heart muscle begins to die, the heart fails and cannot move blood to the body effectively. Blood backs up on its way into the heart causing fluid to accumulate in the lungs and other body tissues. Blood pressure in the arteries drops and oxygen is not delivered to the organs effectively. The kidneys are very often damaged because they require a lot of blood to function. With more severe blood flow problems, other organs begin to fail and this is called shock. Patients suffering from these problems become extremely ill and many die. The other serious problem that can develop when a large amount of heart muscle dies is that the conduction system that coordinates the heartbeat becomes dysfunctional. Problems with electrical conduction in the heart can lead to a rapid or irregular heart rhythm (called arrhythmia), which can lead to cardiac arrest and death. Patients who survive a very severe heart attack virtually always require long term medical care, have lasting heart problems, and do not make a full recovery. As you can see, there are are a wide variety of outcomes that can occur following a heart attack. Only a cardiologist who understands your father's history and evaluates him in person can give prognostic information about his chances of recovering fully from his heart attack. It is important for you to attend your father's appointment with him because it will not only provide you with valuable information, it will allow you to better support him as he recovers.

This answer is for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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