Coronary Artery Disease: What is a heart attack?

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Guest: Dr. Pamela B. Morris – Cardiology

Host: Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatrist

Dr. Linda Austin: I am Dr. Linda Austin. I am interviewing Dr. Pamela Morris, Cardiologist, on a topic about that we hear all the time, but lots of us don’t understands very well heart attack. Dr. Morris, what is a heart attack?

Dr. Pamela B. Morris: Well, the heart is a muscle just like all of the other muscles of your body and its function is to pump blood to all of the vital organs of the body. Just like the other muscles of your body, the heart needs a blood supply to give it the energy that it needs to do its work. It gets that energy and blood supply through what are called the coronary arteries.

Dr. Linda Austin: So, the coronary arteries must be involved in what people often call a coronary.

Dr. Pamela B. Morris: That’s exactly right. The coronary event or a heart attack is caused when something interrupts the blood supply to the heart muscle through the coronary arteries. Now, you would imagine just like any other muscle, if you no longer give it the energy that it needs, no longer give it the oxygen that it needs, then that muscle would be damaged. In the heart, if something interrupts the blood flow such as a blood clot, what can happen is that the muscle itself will begin to suffer and ultimately can die if blood flow isn’t restored.

Dr. Linda Austin: Now, some people have episodes called angina, which must at times be really confusing to demonstrate what is really going on. What is difference between angina and heart attack?

Dr. Pamela B. Morris: Well, usually, angina -- the heart is a muscle again like any other muscle and if something happens to interrupt its energy supply, the muscle can hurt and angina is really heart pain where in some way the blood flow to the heart muscle itself is interrupted or reduced to levels that cause pain or angina.

Dr. Linda Austin: So in other way, it is sort of a very short-term thing.

Dr. Pamela B. Morris: That’s right. Angina usually means that it is a reversible symptom.

Dr. Linda Austin: So if a person then has chest pain and they are not really sure if it’s angina, reversible, or heart attack, what should they do?

Dr. Pamela B. Morris: Well, first of all, it’s important that the very first time you have a symptom like that, if it is concerning to you, it’s always a good idea to mention it to your physician because the new onset of heart pain could herald something or be a warning sign for impending heart attack or more serious problems. On the other hand, many people have what is called chronic stable angina that is they know they have a narrowing or a blockage in one of their arteries that is being treated medically. Their symptoms are stable that is they occur every time they walk up one flight of stairs; they know it’s going to happen, but they are on medication to help keep that to a minimum; that’s a stable condition and they are under the care of their physician. On the other hand, sometimes symptoms occur that are more severe, more prolonged, occurring more frequently with less exertion; and in that circumstance, you may need to seek medical advice. If symptoms are prolonged and not relieved, it could be a heart attack and you definitely need to call 911 and go to the emergency room.

Dr. Linda Austin: Dr. Pamela Morris, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Dr. Pamela B. Morris: Thank you.

Announcer: If you have any questions about the services or programs offered at the Medical University of South Carolina or if you would like to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, please call MUSC Health Connection at (843) 792-1414.

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