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Heart disease health centre

Complications after a heart attack

BMJ Group Medical Reference

You can get problems after a heart attack because your heart is no longer working properly. These complications may mean you need more tests, get more intensive treatment and stay in hospital longer.

Abnormal heart rhythm

It's common for a heart attack to disrupt the way your heart beats. Your heart may beat too quickly, too slowly or in an uneven way. Having an irregular heartbeat means that instead of beating evenly (thump thump thump) like the ticking of a watch, it might beat like this: thump thump thumpthump thump. Abnormal heart rhythms are also called arrhythmias.

The most dangerous kinds of abnormal rhythms stop your heart pumping properly or make your heart work so hard it can't get enough oxygen. Very fast heart rhythms are more common and more dangerous than very slow ones. They can cause your heart to stop, a condition doctors call cardiac arrest.

Sometimes the rhythm goes back to normal without treatment. If it doesn't, you'll need medicine. If your heart's rhythm is dangerously abnormal, particularly if it's very fast, doctors can reset it quickly by passing an electric current through it. This is called cardioversion. If you need it, you will have an anaesthetic first. A machine called a defibrillator will then be used to give an electric shock to your heart.

Heart failure

If your heart attack is bad, your heart may be left too weak to pump correctly. When the heart muscle is no longer able to move blood around your body, pressure builds up behind the damaged part. If the damage is mainly on the left side of your heart, pressure builds up in your lungs. Fluid is forced out of your blood vessels and into your lungs, and you may become short of breath. But there are many treatments available. To learn more, see our article on Heart failure.

Low levels of oxygen in your blood

Doctors call this condition hypoxaemia. Usually it means that blood isn't flowing through your lungs very well. If this happens, you'll be given extra oxygen to breathe through a face mask. Many people are given oxygen after a heart attack whether or not the level of oxygen in their blood is low.

Low blood pressure

Several things can give you low blood pressure after a heart attack. Low blood pressure is a side effect of some of the drugs that are taken for heart failure. It can also be a sign that your heart attack was serious and that your heart can no longer pump blood properly. The treatment you get depends on what is causing the problem. If you have very low blood pressure, you'll be admitted to an intensive care unit and given drugs by injection to increase your blood pressure.

Cardiogenic shock
Last Updated: December 18, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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