What Is a Widow Maker Heart Attack?

Heart attacks can be deadly, and the widow maker is one of the deadliest kind. It can happen suddenly when a key artery that moves blood to the heart gets almost or completely blocked. Without emergency treatment, you most likely won’t survive.

Despite its name, the widow maker strikes women, too.

How It Happens

Your heart muscles need a constant supply of blood. When something cuts off the flow, you have a heart attack. Without oxygen, the cells in your heart muscles start to die in minutes.

A widow maker is when you get a big blockage at the beginning of the left main artery or the left anterior descending artery (LAD). They’re a major pipeline for blood. If blood gets 100% blocked at that critical location, it’s almost always fatal without emergency care.

Symptoms

You will have the same warning signs as you would with other types of heart attacks.

  • Chest pain or discomfort. This is the most common symptom for women and men. You may feel pain, pressure, squeezing, or fullness in the center of your chest for several minutes. The feeling might go away and then return
  • Upper body pain or discomfort. You might feel it in one or both arms, your back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath. You feel like you can’t catch your breath. This can happen with or without chest discomfort. Women report this more often than men do.
  • Nausea
  • Cold sweat
  • Lightheadedness
  • Pain in the back of the jaw

Quick treatment can save your life. Call 911 right away. That’s almost always better than having someone drive you to the ER. Paramedics can try to revive your heart immediately if it’s stopped.

Causes

Heart attacks, including widow makers, usually happen because of a combination of lifestyle and genetic reasons. Cholesterol and fatty plaque clog your arteries over time and choke off blood.

You’re more likely to have heart attacks if you:

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Treatments

You may survive a widow maker if the emergency room doctors can treat you quickly. The ER team races against time to unblock your left main or LAD artery within 90 minutes of your heart attack. Restoring the blood flow can prevent scars on your heart that can do permanent damage.

Usually, you won’t need surgery. Instead, your doctors most likely will need to place one or more stents.

First, your doctors will thread a thin tube called a catheter to reach the blocked artery. They’ll make a small cut through your skin, maybe in your leg. A tiny balloon at the tip of the catheter will inflate and push through the blockage. This is called an angioplasty.

Arteries opened with angioplasty can become blocked again. To prevent that, doctors can also put in a small stainless steel mesh tube called a stent to prop open the artery walls. This can be done during your angioplasty.

If the ER team unblocks your left main or LAD artery quickly enough, you could have little or no damage to your heart. If your doctors find blockages in three or more coronary arteries, you may need heart surgery.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on April 16, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Texas Heart Institute: “When speaking of heart disease, what is the Widowmaker?”

National Cancer Institute: “Structure of the Heart.”

Mayo Clinic: “Heart attack.”

Michigan Health: “A Doctor Explains What Makes a Heart Attack a ‘Widowmaker.’”

Texas Health Resources: “The ‘This Is Us’ Widowmaker Heart Attack Explained.”

Cleveland Clinic: “How You Can Outsmart the Widow Maker Artery,” “Cardiac Catheterization & Coronary Angioplasty and Stent (Interventional Procedures).”

American Heart Association: “What Is an Automatic External Defibrillator?” “Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics 2018 At-a-Glance.”

Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Cardiovascular Interventions: “Outcomes After Emergency Percutaneous Coronary Intervention in Patients With Unprotected Left Main Stem Occlusion: The BCIS National Audit of Percutaneous Coronary Intervention 6-Year Experience.”

Myheart.net: “The Widow Maker Heart Attack.”

SecondsCount.org: “Treating Heart Attack with Angioplasty & Stenting.”

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