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 may not survive.
Despite its name, the widow maker strikes women, too.
How It Happens
Your heart muscle needs 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 may be fatal without emergency care.
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.
- Cold sweat
- 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.
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:
- Are obese
- Eat a lot of unhealthy foods
- Are over 45 (men) or 55 (women)
- Don’t exercise
- Have high blood pressure
- Have uncontrolled diabetes
- Have a family history of heart disease
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 or wrist. 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.