How the ‘widowmaker’ heart attack earned its name

Health
Man with chest pain

Even the name sounds scary.
Although any heart attack can be fatal, widowmaker heart attacks have earned notoriety because they are especially deadly. A widowmaker typically involves a 100 percent blockage of the left anterior descending artery, a major blood vessel that provides blood and oxygen to the front and main walls of the heart.
Despite its name, a widowmaker can affect both women and men. In some cases, the heart attack can lead to sudden death, but patients can survive with prompt medical attention.
“The key is to receive emergency treatment quickly,” says Julie Pope, director of heart and vascular services for Tidelands Health. “Time is of the essence. For every minute that passes, more damage can be done to the heart.”

Symptoms

So how do you know if you’re suffering a widowmaker heart attack? Pope says a widowmaker typically presents with the same symptoms commonly associated with a heart attack, including:

  • Chest pain or discomfort including pain, pressure, tightness, squeezing or fullness in the chest for several minutes.
  • Upper body pain or discomfort that can occur in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Cold sweat
  • Light-headedness

Treatment for a widowmaker heart attack typically involves the use of balloons and stents to restore the blocked blood flow, Pope says. A tiny wire is pushed through the blockage, then a balloon is used to open up the blocked area.
The balloon is removed and a stent is inserted to prop open the blockage.
“Fortunately, people are a lot better educated these days about heart attack symptoms, which means they are more quick to seek treatment,” Pope says. “Combine that with treatment advances, and we’re able to save more lives than ever before.”

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Pope says prevention is key to avoiding heart attacks – widowmaker or not.
“The most important thing people can do is be proactive and maintain their cardiac health through healthy lifestyle choices,” Pope says. “Develop a strong relationship with a primary care physician and make sure you’re talking about your family’s history of heart disease and keeping an eye out for symptoms of any problems.”
Even if you have a family history of heart disease, you can help reduce your chances of suffering a heart attack. A recent study identified four healthy habits that were shown to reduce heart attack risk even among people with a genetic disposition to heart disease.
They are:

  • Not smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Regular physical activity
  • Eating a healthy diet
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