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Even if heart attacks and heart failures are different, they do share a lot of symptoms and are generally triggered by the same factor: coronary artery disease.

Heart attacks and heart failures share a lot of similarities. They are both heart conditions, and they both have a similar cause. However, there are also some differences that set them apart.

Heart attack vs heart failure: How they occur

Probably the easier way to tell a heart attack from heart failure is to think of how these two occur. A heart attack is a sudden process, caused by a blockage in the coronary artery. When this happens, the heart is deprived of oxygen, its muscles die, and a heart attack occurs.

Heart failure, on the other hand, is a gradual process. When your heart isn’t receiving enough blood, it starts to work harder to try and pump more to compensate for the missing blood. As this happens, the heart’s muscle becomes weaker, and therefore less capable of pumping blood.

In time, heart attacks can lead to heart failure, because your heart is less able to pump blood efficiently. There are cases in which a heart attack causes sudden heart failure. This is referred to as acute heart failure, but it can be treated with medication.

What causes heart attacks and heart failure?

Heart attack and heart failure are both consequences of coronary artery disease. When people have high cholesterol deposits attached to the inside of their coronary arteries, the plaque bursts, leading to further blood clot formations.

When these blood clots clog up the coronary arteries, blood is no longer able to flow and reach the heart. Since blood carries the oxygen that organs need to survive, the heart’s tissue won’t be able to make it without its blood supply. Think of your heart like a flower and the coronary artery as its only water supply.

Heart attacks generally occur when plaques rupture. There are also cases in which heart attacks are triggered by a coronary artery spasm, which can occur even if there isn’t any plaque build-up in the vessels. Heart attacks can also be induced by a tear in the coronary artery’s walls, but these cases are rare. Medically speaking, this occurrence is known as a spontaneous coronary artery dissection.

Heart failure, on the other hand, is normally caused by the heart having to pump blood through a narrow and stiff artery. Even if this is the most common cause of heart failure, there are also others, such as infections, heart valve disease, lung disease, thyroid disease, HIV, chemotherapy, alcohol abuse, cardiomyopathy (heart muscle problems), arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats), or congenital heart defects.

Heart attack vs heart failure: What are the symptoms?

Because symptoms are similar, it's hard for ordinary patients to tell them part.  While heart attack and heart failure do share a lot of symptoms, doctors can tell the difference, so don’t hesitate in asking for medical help whenever you suspect either of these. Diagnosing them on time can save your life.

As far as heart attacks as concerned, it’s important to note that the signs are different from one person to another, but they typically include:

  • Angina (chest pain)
  • Pain that radiates to other body parts (such as the jaw, neck, or shoulder — this symptom is most common in women)
  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Cold sweat
  • Lightheadedness
The classic symptoms of heart failure include dyspnea (short of breath which occurs when you lie down), arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats), fatigue and tiredness, confusion, fluid retention (which is visible and causes weight gain, ankle, legs, or stomach swelling), wheezing or coughing.

How are heart attacks and heart failure treated?

Since you might be confused about whether you are experiencing a heart attack or heart failure, the best option is to treat them both as medical emergencies and call 911. Generally speaking, heart attacks are more urgent and require medical assistance as soon as possible.

If you suspect that you or someone around you is having a heart attack, the first thing to do is to call the emergency medical services. The second is to chew a dose of aspirin, as studies have shown that chewing aspirin in the fastest way to get this drug into your bloodstream and prevent any more blood clots from forming.

After being diagnosed with a heart attack, doctors will determine what the best treatment path is, depending on what caused your heart attack. Since the primary cause is coronary artery disease, you will have to change your diet, take cholesterol-lowering medication, but also keep your blood pressure under control.

Some people require a more aggressive intervention to open up a clogged artery and allow blood to flow freely once again. The two most common interventions of this kind are:

  • Percutaneous coronary intervention, in which the doctor inserts a catheter into your coronary artery to open it up, and may also place a stent to keep it permanently open. 
  • Coronary artery bypass graft, which is open-heart surgery that requires taking a healthy vessel from another body part and using it to re-route the blood past the blockage site, so your heart can receive blood again.

People experience heart failure may receive a lot of the medication that is prescribed for those who have suffered a heart attack. The goal is to slow your heart rate and to ease the swelling. You may be given diuretics pills (to eliminate all that water), or blood pressure-lowering medication.

Both of these heart problems require making lifestyle changes and cutting back on the habits that have lead to such complications in the first place. Doctors will ask that you quit smoking, reducing your salt and sugar intake, eat less fat and foods rich in cholesterol and lose weight if necessary.

Conclusion

Even if heart attacks and heart failures are different, they do share a lot of symptoms and are generally triggered by the same factor: coronary artery disease. Heart attacks and heart failure can greatly influence one another, especially when considering that even a single heart attack can trigger a slow but painful heart failure.

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