What Is a ‘Mild Heart Attack’ (and Is It a Big Deal, or Not)?

Experts say the future's largely in your hands
Illustration of a heart having a heart attack

Some people are just plain lucky: They suffer a heart attack and emerge none the worse for the experience. Afterwards, they may say they had “a mild heart attack.”

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Most people understand essentially what this means, but cardiologist Joseph Campbell, MD, finds the term misleading.

“Despite a good outcome, a mild heart attack is still a big deal. All heart attacks are serious,” he says.

What a mild heart attack means

A “mild heart attack” is a common way of referring to what physicians call a non-ST elevation myocardial infarction, or NSTEMI. (This indicates how the heartbeat looks on an electrocardiogram).

In this type of heart attack, blood flow through one of the coronary arteries was partially blocked, limiting the supply of oxygenated blood to the heart muscle.

“If you were told you’ve had a mild heart attack, it probably means your heart didn’t suffer much damage and still pumps normally,” Dr. Campbell says.

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How do doctors know what kind of heart attack you’ve had?

You can’t predict the outcome of a heart attack by your symptoms or how severe they are. That’s why symptoms that suggest a possible heart attack should never be ignored.

“How well you fare after a heart attack depends on how quickly you act,” Dr. Campbell says. “The sooner you get emergency care, the better the chance you will suffer less permanent damage to your heart.”

If you go to the ER with heart-attack symptom, you’ll be treated right away. Your blood will be examined for any enzymes indicating there’s been damage to your heart’s muscle. And a noninvasive echocardiogram is performed to see how well your heart is pumping.

Still it may take several hours to determine whether you’ve had a heart attack — and what kind of treatment is needed. That means, if you’re not sure what your symptoms mean, the thought of spending several hours in the ER might discourage you from seeking care. Don’t let it! Dr. Campbell advises that it’s much wiser to err on the safe side.

“It’s better you spend several hours in the ER than learn the damage has been done, and your heart can’t be fixed,” he says.

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Why even mild heart attacks should be taken seriously

Even if your heart comes through unscathed, a heart attack should be viewed as a wake-up call. “You are at increased risk for another heart attack or a stroke. It’s time to get serious,” Dr. Campbell says.

Your physician will make a plan for preventing another heart attack. But it’s you who must carry it out.

“It is extremely important to understand that how you live your life and manage your risk factors going forward will impact what happens to you next,” he says. “We urge you to recognize a mild heart attack as an important event and use it to make changes that positively impact your health.”

This article first appeared in Cleveland Clinic Heart Advisor.

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