How Does Aspirin Help During a Heart Attack?

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The heart is the most important muscle in the body, so it seems like something of a marketing ploy by the folks at Bayer to suggest that something so simple as a humble aspirin tablet can be of any use when this life-sustaining organ goes into epic fail mode. But it’s true: next to calling 911 immediately, taking an aspirin is one of your best bets when it comes to surviving a cardiac event. As Ben Affleck once said in a shampoo commercial, here comes the science.

We all have platelets in our blood – specialized disc-shaped cells that cling together to form a clot. Blood clots serve an important purpose; when you cut yourself shaving or smack your nose against someone’s fist, the body detects a disruption in the lining of a blood vessel and sends platelets scrambling to the injured area to stop the bleeding.

Sometimes, though, platelets get confused and rush to block an uninjured vessel. In the case of a heart attack, it’s usually a plaque (a cholesterol-rich build-up of gunk) that was attached to the wall of a vessel and suddenly ruptured. Even though there is no bleeding taking place, the rupture attracts the platelets and they build their customary blood-stopping barrier. The clot ends up blocking a healthy vein and deprives the heart of necessary oxygen-rich blood and causes a portion of the muscle to die. End result: heart attack.

Making Platelets Less Sticky

Among aspirin’s other properties, such as fever and pain reduction, it also has an inhibitory effect on platelets in the blood. It somehow makes the platelets less “sticky” and less likely to clump together. And less is better in this case - too much aspirin can cause stomach upset and uncontrollable bleeding, which is why one baby aspirin (81 mg) per day has been determined to be the optimal dosage to keep the blood flowing smoothly without adverse side effects.

Rosie O’Donnell credits aspirin with saving her life during her recent cardiac event. Interestingly enough, my Dad had a heart attack in 1990 and his symptoms were almost identical to Rosie’s. O’Donnell had struggled to assist an overweight woman out of her car one afternoon and then noticed aching in her arms and a slight pain in her chest later in the day. My Dad had aching in his arms one evening and a slight tightness in his chest, but charged the symptoms off to having been repairing the doorbell earlier and having held his arms overhead for so long. In both cases there was no “elephant on the chest” sensation or major pain in the left arm only. And Dad’s doctor later credited his daily baby aspirin regimen with saving his life, since once he recovered sufficiently for surgery he required a quintuple bypass.

Moral of the story: if you’re over 35, ask your doctor about aspirin. If you suddenly feel any sort of unusual pain or discomfort in your arms, chest and/or lower jaw do not hesitate to get thee to the emergency room ASAP.