Heart Attacks while Exercising
Lawrence Kline, MD, is a cardiologist on staff at Banner Estrella Medical Center. His office can be reached at (602) 861-1168.
Question: I’ve heard stories of people dying suddenly from heart attacks while exercising. Why does this happen? As a middle-aged man who enjoys exercising, am I at risk?
Answer: Unfortunately, there are approximately 1.2 million heart attacks every year in the U.S., of which nearly 500,000 are fatal. Many more people die from heart attacks every year in the U.S. than from any other disease.
Most likely, the culprit behind these sudden heart attacks is severe coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is a narrowing of the arteries caused by the buildup of cholesterol-containing plaque on the vessel walls. When a blood clot forms, or a piece of plaque breaks free and blocks the already-narrowed artery, a heart attack can occur.
Studies suggest that during exercise, the physical exertion and adrenaline running through the arteries can result in plaque breaking away from the vessel wall and forming a clot—leading to a heart attack.
If you already exercise regularly, the risk of a sudden heart attack is extremely small. However, if you are considering starting a rigorous exercise program, consult your physician first, especially if you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or any other cardiac condition. Depending on your cardiac health, your doctor may recommend lowering your cholesterol level, or other measures, before you begin exercising in order to reduce the risk of a heart attack. Your physician can also help you determine an exercise program specific to your personal health needs.
The majority of men and women who die from sudden heart attacks experience no prior symptoms, and may have had severe CAD that went undiagnosed. This is exactly why it is so important to see your doctor for annual physicals, and at the first sign of anything abnormal.
Should you begin to experience symptoms during or after exercising—such as intense pain in the chest, neck, jaw or left arm, tightness in your chest or shortness of breath, unusual dizziness, fainting, or nausea—seek emergency medical care.