In heart disease, what's a clot and what's a clog?

Coronary Clots: Fast-Acting Total Eclipse of the Heart

A heart attack, courtesy of a blood clot in a coronary artery
A heart attack, courtesy of a blood clot in a coronary artery
HowStuffWorks 2008

Sometimes, when clogged arteries are cleared -- either naturally or medically -- a larger problem presents itself: a clot. Picture the pipes beneath your kitchen sink: Inside them, there's probably some gunk that has built up in certain spots (a clog). As this gunk gathers in the pipes, the water passing over it firms up the outer layer. As a deposit in one area grows, it attracts more of your kitchen-sink drainage and food matter to it. Eventually, the water pressure increases on this trouble spot, and water wears away the gunk and knocks it free (a clot).

A similar scenario can unfold in your arteries, and it can start with the clogging process we just talked about. When an unstable piece of that clog breaks free, it leaves a nick in its surface Just as your body quickly works to repair a cut on your skin with a scab, it also hustles to repair the nick on that clog. We call this scab forming inside your artery a clot, and it can shut down blood flow to your heart or brain within minutes, causing you to have a heart attack or stroke.

Before you take an aspirin to help prevent further clotting, in fact, before you do anything, call 9-1-1 [source: AHA]. The faster you get yourself into a doctor's care, the better. If you get medical treatment within an hour or two, doctors will have a better chance of saving damaged heart tissue.

Once you get to a hospital, doctors may inject a clot-busting medication such as streptokinase or tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) to break up the clot. They also may insert a balloon catheter to dilate the narrowed artery (called angioplasty), and a stent, a small tube made of metal or plastic, to stabilize the artery.

­Now that you know more about coronary clots and clogs, you may find yourself lying awake in bed, overwhelmed by clog and clog anxiety. It's a valid concern, but a heart healthy lifestyle will help to prevent clogs and clots from forming. A doctor may advise you take a daily aspirin to help prevent heart attacks and strokes if you're susceptible to clotting due to heart disease or other conditions. And if you feel chest pain, tingling, pain in your legs or signs of stroke such as difficulty speaking or numbness, seek immediate medical attention.

If you still can't sleep, why don't you wander over to the next page for more stories on your heart.


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