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How Your Heart Works

At rest, your heart beats approximately 60 to 100 times a minute. A child's heart rate is higher than an adults heart rate. In an average lifetime, a heart will beat around 3 billion times.

When you are physically active, excited or ill, your heart rate can rise significantly.  This is a natural response to these situations.

There are two parts to each heartbeat. The first part, when the heart contracts and pumps blood, is called the 'systole' (sis-tol). The second part, when the heart relaxes so the chambers can refill with blood, is called 'diastole' (di-as-tol).

Every heartbeat results in blood moving forward through your arteries. You can feel this movement as a 'pulse' by placing two fingers over the artery of your wrist. Your pulse rate tells you how fast your heart is beating. 

Your body has a network of blood vessels called 'arteries', 'veins' and 'capillaries', which carry the blood pumped by your heart. Your heart and these blood vessels make up your 'circulatory system'.

Arteries carry blood away from your heart. The largest artery in your body is called the ‘aorta’. It has branches that carry blood to your head, arms and legs, and organs in your chest and abdomen. The first branches of the aorta are the ‘coronary arteries’. These run back to the outside surface of your heart to form a network of smaller arteries that supply your heart muscle with oxygen and nutrients.

Smaller branch arteries feed into even smaller blood vessels called ‘capillaries’, which cannot be seen with the naked eye. Oxygen and nutrients pass into body tissues from the capillaries, and then veins carry blood back to your heart.

Warning Signs of Heart Attack

Your heart is a muscular pump that needs a continuous supply of oxygen. It gets oxygen from your blood, which flows to the heart muscle through arteries on its surface. These arteries are called coronary arteries. 

A heart attack happens when there is a sudden complete blockage of an artery that supplies blood to an area of your heart. As a result, some of your heart muscle begins to die. Without early medical treatment, this damage can be permanent.

A heart attack is sometimes referred to as a myocardial infarction (MI), acute myocardial infarction, coronary occlusion or coronary thrombosis.

To find out about the causes, diagnosis, treatment and management of heart attacks, use the navigation bar below.


The underlying cause of a heart attack is coronary heart disease (CHD). Some people may not know they have CHD until they have a heart attack. For others, a heart attack can happen after weeks, months or years of treatment for CHD. 

CHD is the slow build-up of fatty deposits on the inner wall of the arteries that supply your heart muscle with blood. These fatty deposits, called plaque, gradually clog and narrow the inside channel of the arteries. It is a process that begins early in life and continues over the years. 

A heart attack usually begins when an area of plaque cracks. Blood cells and other parts of your blood stick over the damaged area and form a clot that suddenly and completely blocks the blood flow to your heart muscle. If your artery remains blocked, the lack of blood permanently damages the area of your heart muscle supplied by that artery.  

If you are rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack, your health care team will do a number of tests to find out if you are having a heart attack. These tests will help them to decide the best treatment for you.

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) 
    During an ECG test, electrical leads are placed on your chest, arms and legs. These leads detect small electrical signals and produce a tracing on graph paper that illustrates the electrical impulses traveling through your heart muscle.
  • Blood tests
  • Chest X-ray
  • Angiogram 
    This is a special X-ray that shows whether or not your coronary arteries are narrowed or blocked. Under a local anaesthetic, a small tube (catheter) is inserted into an artery in your arm or groin and guided into the heart. Dye is injected through the catheter into the coronary arteries and X-rays are taken. The X-rays give detailed information about the condition of these arteries.

Too many people lose their lives because they wait too long to get treatment for heart attack. 

Calling an Emergency Hospital No. for an ambulance may reduce the damage to your heart and increase your chance of survival. 

Ambulance paramedics are trained to use special lifesaving equipment and to start early treatments for heart attack inside the ambulance. In hospital, you will receive treatments that help to reduce damage to your heart.

This heart attack treatment involves the use of special clot-dissolving medicines that are administered directly into your blood stream.

Angioplasty and stent implantation 
Coronary angioplasty is a procedure that aims to restore blood flow to your heart by using a special balloon to open a blocked artery from the inside. After angioplasty is performed to open up a blocked coronary artery, a special expandable metal tube ('stent') is usually put into the site, expanded, and left in place to keep your artery open.

Bypass surgery 
Coronary artery bypass graft surgery (often shortened to CABG and pronounced 'cabbage') is an operation in which blood flow is redirected around a narrowed area in one or more of your coronary arteries, allowing blood to flow more freely to your heart muscle.

There is a high risk of dangerous changes to your heartbeat after the start of a heart attack. The most serious changes stop your heart beating and cause a cardiac arrest. The best treatment for cardiac arrest involves using a defibrillator to give your heart a controlled electric shock that may make it start beating again. 

Implantable cardiac defibrillators (ICDs) 
After recovering from a heart attack, some people may develop, or be at high risk of developing, abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) that could be life-threatening. Sometimes a small device can be put into your chest and connected to your heart to treat an arrhythmia if it occurs. This device is called an implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD).

Modern treatments and healthy lifestyle choices can help your heart attack recovery, greatly reduce your risk of further heart problems, and relieve or control symptoms such as angina.

To reduce your risk and aid your recovery:

  • take your medicines as prescribed by your doctor
  • be smoke-free
  • enjoy healthy eating
  • be physically active
  • control your blood pressure and cholesterol
  • achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
  • maintain your psychological and social health.

If you have diabetes, you should generally aim to keep your blood glucose levels within the normal non-diabetic range and follow individual advice from your doctor or accredited diabetes educator.

Remember that if you have already had a heart attack, you are at higher risk of having another in the future. Make sure you know the warning signs and talk to your doctor about an action plan to follow if you experience chest pain or other symptoms of heart attack.

Article Courtesy: Heart Foundation of Australia

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