What are the widowmaker artery and a widowmaker heart attack?
Dr. Kirtane: There are three major arteries of the heart that supply blood to the heart muscle. While blockages can occur in other artery branches, a complete blockage in any of those three major arteries can cause a major heart attack.
The LAD artery supplies the most amount of blood to the heart, which is often why it gets the most recognition. What people call a widowmaker heart attack is caused by a 100% blockage of plaque, or cholesterol buildup, upstream in the LAD artery.
What happens during a heart attack?
During a heart attack, blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart is reduced or cut off.
If you think of your heart as a house with pipes, a heart attack can be caused by a process that cakes the walls across all the pipes. Usually, this is caused by a buildup of cholesterol plaque. The plaque becomes less stable over time and tends to clot off at a certain location.
If an artery becomes fully clotted, there’s no more blood flow and it can cause heart tissue to die.
There may be one area that has a very severe blockage that needs to be opened. You can also have blockages in multiple vessels.
Who is at risk?
Those at risk for a heart attack include people with:
What are symptoms of a heart attack?
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Excessive fatigue
- Shortness of breath
Patients who are older, women, or those who have diabetes may not experience typical chest pain and symptoms could be more subtle. If you develop any symptoms for the first time, it suggests that something is changing with your arteries, and you need to seek immediate medical attention.
Call 911. Cardiologists often say, “Time is muscle.” The longer you wait, the more muscle dies.
What’s the treatment?
If the LAD artery has significant blockage but isn’t completely clogged, you may be able to catch it in time to prevent a heart attack. If you’re diagnosed with significant heart artery blockages or a heart attack, the blockage is opened to restore blood flow.
Your physician and care team will first do a cardiac catheterization procedure, where we go into the artery in the wrist where you feel your pulse. We take pictures to make the diagnosis, then based on the diagnosis we may decide to perform an angioplasty procedure to open the blockage and a stent to keep the artery open.
In other cases, we might suggest coronary artery bypass surgery or taking a more aggressive treatment with medication alone. It depends on the types of blockages, where they’re located, how severe they are, and what the best options are for the individual patient.