You feel a pain in your chest. You begin to feel nauseous. Suddenly a tingling feeling shots down your arm. You panic as you wonder if it is a heart attack. And indeed, these are some of the classic symptoms are slightly different for men and women, and if you get them you should get medical attention as quickly as possible. Over 700,000 Americans have heart attacks every year.What has happened is that one of the arteries in your heart has become blocked, and the blood that usually flows through it carrying oxygen and nutrients to part of your heart is no longer there. And without oxygen the cells in this part of the heart soon begin to die.Many people think that their arteries are similar to the water pipes in their house, which sometimes get clogged when gunk builds up in them. But they are actually quite different. In your arteries, and particularly the ones in your heart, the walls of the arteries interact with the blood that flows through them.
And since this blood carries many different live cells, there is a constant communication and interaction between them and the cells in the walls of your heart. Because of this, these cells participate in the development of a heart attack.The major thing that causes a heart attack is a buildup of plaque in the arteries, referred to as atherosclerosis. This buildup does not happen suddenly it builds up slowly over many years usually over several decades. Surprisingly, though, in most cases, it is not the plaque itself that causes most heart attacks.Part of the reason is inflammation. As you likely know, inflammation is produced when your body senses an injury or a foreign object. It immediately goes to work to repair the injury or get rid of the foreign object.To understand inflammation’s role in the process we have to look at how cholesterol is distributed throughout the body. We usually refer to it as LDL or HDL cholesterol, but these initials actually refer to the carrier of the cholesterol.
At the same time, T cells from the immune system also go to work trying to get rid of the LDL’s. They release what are called cytokines that amplify the process. Together with the macrophages they create what is called a fatty streak that eventually develops into a bulging section of plaque on the artery wall.
This section of plaque will continue to grow over the years, and it will eventually develop a cap over it. Surprisingly, it is not this bulging section of plaque that actually causes most heart attacks. As the plaque grows, however, inflammatory substances secreted by the foam cells within the plaque can weaken the cap. If this happens, a crack, or channel, forms deep within the interior that leads to the surface. The foam cells then release chemicals that can cause a blood clot above the cap, and it is this clot that completely blocks off the artery. This is when most heart attacks occur.