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Myocardial infarction
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Myocardial infarction

Acute myocardial infarction (AMI or MI), a medical condition commonly known as heart attack, is a serious, sudden heart condition that presents as varying degrees of chest pain, weakness, sweating, nausea, and vomiting, sometimes causing loss of consciousness. A myocardial infarction is a medical emergency. The phrase "heart attack" is occasionally used to refer to heart problems other than a myocardial infarction, such as unstable angina pectoris.

The medical term for a heart attack is myocardial infarction, where "myo" refers to muscle, and "cardium" refers to the heart (myocardium is the heart muscle) and "infarction" means tissue death (necrosis) caused by an obstruction of blood flow.

A heart attack is a life-threatening medical emergency which demands immediate activation of the emergency medical services. Immediate transport by ambulance to a hospital where advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) is available needs to be arranged.

Table of contents
1 Signs and symptoms
2 Diagnosis
3 Pathophysiology
4 First aid
5 Treatment
6 History
7 See also

Signs and symptoms

The main symptom of myocardial infarction is chest pain, which is present in about 2/3 of all cases. It is often described as "intense pressure" ("like an elephant sitting on your chest") but can also be a sharp or stabbing pain. The pain may radiate to the left arm, neck or the back and can be slight, moderate, or severe. Associated symptoms include dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath and diaphoresis (excessive sweating).

Some patients present with acute arrhythmia, mainly ventricular fibrillation, which can rapidly lead to death if untreated. These complications require cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

In women and patients with diabetes mellitus, the symptoms of myocardial infarction can be much more aspecific. Women often simply report decreased exercise tolerance and breathlessness, and diabetics can experience chest discomfort, a sensation of uncomfortable chest pressure, cold sweats, nausea, pain in the arm, back, jaw, or stomach (so called "anginal equivalents"), or abdominal pain. The mechanism behind this phenomenon is thought to be polyneuropathy (peripheral nerve damage), which commonly develops in longstanding diabetics and may blunt or alter the symptoms associated with a heart attack. This results in a high incidence of "silent" myocardial infarctions in patients with diabetes.


Classical cases of myocardial infarction are often identified by ambulance staff or emergency room doctors without further investigations. Nevertheless, for a complete diagnosis, the medical history, combined with electrocardiogram results and blood tests, is vital.


Electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG) findings suggestive of MI are elevations of the ST segment and changes in the T wave. After a myocardial infarction, changes can often be seen on the ECG called Q waves, representing scarred heart tissue.

Myocardial markers

Cardiac enzymes are proteins from cardiac tissue found in the blood. Until the 1980s, the enzymes SGOT and LDH were used to assess cardiac injury. Then it was found that disproportional elevation of the MB subtype of the enzyme creatine phosphokinase (CPK) was very specific for myocardial injury. Current guidelines are generally in favor of troponin isoenzymes I or T, which are thought to rise before permanent injury develops. A positive troponin in the setting of chest pain may accurately predict a high likelihood of a myocardial infarction in the near future.

The diagnosis of myocardial infarction used to require all three components, history, ECG, and enzymes, were positive for MI. Currently the cardiac enzymes have become so reliable that enzyme elevations alone are considered reliable measures of cardiac injury, with ECG serving to determine where in the heart the damage has occurred, and history serving to screen patients for further enzyme and ECG testing.

In difficult cases or in situations where intervention to restore blood flow is appropriate, an angiogram can be done (see top of the article for an image). Using a catheter inserted into an artery (usually the femoral artery), obstructed or narrowed vessels can be identified, and angioplasty applied as a therapeutic measure (see below). Angiography requires extensive skill, especially in emergency settings, and may not always be available out of hours. It is commonly performed by radiologists or cardiologists. There is a small risk of dissection (tearing) of the blood vessels.


The underlying mechanism of a heart attack is the destruction of heart muscle cells due to a lack of oxygen. If these cells are not supplied with sufficient oxygen by the coronary arteries to meet their metabolic demands, they die by a process called infarction.

The most common cause of heart attack by far is atherosclerosis, a gradual buildup of fat-containing substances in plaques in the arterial wall. Placques can become unstable, rupture, and form a thrombus (blood clot) that occludes the artery. When this process happens in the coronary vasculature, it leads to necrosis of downstream myocardium. All risk factors for atherosclerosis are also (modifiable) risk factors for ischemic heart disease: older age, smoking, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes (or insulin resistance) and obesity.

Heart attacks can also infrequently occur if the work load of the heart suddenly rises and the necessary oxygen cannot be supplied quickly enough. This is why extreme stress or physical exertion can result in heart attacks.

First aid

Immediate care

As myocardial infarction is a common medical emergency, the signs are often part of first aid courses. General management in the acute setting is:

Since the publication of data that availability of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in public places may significantly increase chances of survival, many of these have been installed in public buildings, public transport facilities and in non-ambulance emergency vehicles (e.g. police cars and fire engines). AEDs analyse the rhythm and determine whether the arrhythmia is amenable to defibrillation ("shockable").

Emergency services

Emergency services may recommend the patient to take nitroglycerin tablets or patches, in case these are available, particularly if they have been the victim of prior heart attacks.

In an ambulance, an intravenous line is established, and the patient is transported immediately if breathing and pulse are present. Oxygen first aid is provided and the patient is calmed. Close cardiac monitoring (with an electrocardiogram) is initiated if available.

If the patient has lost breathing or circulation advanced cardiac life support (including defibrillation) may be necessary and (at the paramedic level) injection of medications may be given per protocol. CPR is performed if there is no satisfactory cardiac output.

About 20% of patients die before they reach the hospital; the cause of death is often ventricular fibrillation.

Wilderness first aid

In wilderness first aid, a possible heart attack justifies medical evacuation by the fastest available means, including MEDEVAC, even in the earliest or precursor stages. The patient will rapidly be incapable of further exertion and have to be carried out.

Air travel

Doctors traveling by commercial aircraft may be able to assist an MI patient by using the on-board first aid kit, which contains basic cardiac drugs used in advanced cardiac life support, and oxygen. Flight attendants are generally aware of the location of these materials. Pilots are required to divert the flight to the nearest airport.


First line

In the hospital, oxygen, aspirin, nitroglycerin and analgesia (usually morphine) are administered as soon as possible, if this has not already happened during transport.


The ultimate goal of the management in the acute phase of the disease is to salvage as much myocardium as possible and restore contractile function of heart chambers. This is achieved primarily with thrombolytic drugs, such as streptokinase, urokinase, or the synthetic alteplase (recombinant tissue plasminogen activator, rtPA). Heparin alone as an anticoagulant is substandard.

Although clinical trials suggest better outcomes, angioplasty as a first-line measure is probably still underused. This is largely dependent on the available of an experienced interventional cardiologist on-site, or the availability of rapid transport to a referral centre.

Emergency coronary surgery, in the form of coronary artery bypass surgery is another option, although this option is in decline since the development of angioplasty. The same limitations apply: cardiothoracic surgery services are not available in many hospitals.

Monitoring and follow-up

Additional objectives are to prevent life-threatening arrhythmias or conduction disturbances. This requires monitoring in a coronary care unit and protocolised administration of antiarrhythmic agents.

If no surgical procedures are anticipated, patients are also initiated on aspirin and/or clopidogrel (Plavix®); other anticoagulant drugs have not shown additional benefit. ACE inhibitors are commenced in the course of follow-up to assist in ventricular remodeling. Recent studies have shown benefit of the initiation of a statin (e.g. simvastatin 40 mg), even in patients without known hypercholesterolemia.

Patients are discouraged from working and sexual activity for about two months, while they undergo cardiac rehabilitation training. Local authorities may place limitations on driving motorised vehicles.

During a follow-up outpatient visit, it will be determined if the patient suffers from angina pectoris. If this is the case, treadmill testing or angiography are often performed to identify treatable causes, as this will decrease the risk of future myocardial infarction.


Before the discovery of the electrocardiogram, it was impossible to diagnose myocardial infarction. The term angina pectoris had already been extant for 150 years (William Heberden coined the term in 1772), but little was known about the disease mechanism.

A major breakthrough in the identification of risk factors was the 1956 British doctors study, which showed an increased risk of myocardial infarction in heavy smokers.

See also