What is a heart attack?
A heart attack is also called a myocardial infarction. It happens
when one or more parts of the heart muscle don’t get enough oxygen. That occurs when
blood flow to the heart muscle is blocked.
If the blood and oxygen supply is cut off, muscle cells of the
heart begin to suffer damage and start to die. Lasting (permanent) damage begins
within 30 minutes of blockage. The heart muscle may then no longer work as it
What causes a heart attack?
A blockage in the arteries can lead to a heart attack. A blockage
is caused by a buildup of plaque. This is called atherosclerosis. Plaque is made up
of deposits, cholesterol, and other substances. When a plaque breaks (ruptures), a
blood clot quickly forms. The blood clot is the actual cause of the heart
Who is at risk for a heart attack?
A heart attack can happen to anyone. But certain factors can raise
your risk for one. Some of these factors you can’t change. Others you may be able to
manage through lifestyle changes and medical care.
You may be at higher risk for a heart attack if you:
- Have high blood pressure
- Have low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL)
cholesterol, high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or high
levels of triglycerides.
- Have a family history of heart disease. This is especially
true if the heart disease started before age 55.
- Are older in age. Generally, men are at risk at a younger
age than women. After menopause, women are equally at risk.
- Have diabetes.
- Smoke, including chewing tobacco and electronic cigarettes
- Are under a lot of stress
- Drink too much alcohol or use illegal drugs
- Are not active
- Are overweight
- Eat a diet high in saturated fat and low in fiber
What are the symptoms of a heart attack?
Each person may have slightly different symptoms of a heart
attack. But these are the most common symptoms:
- Severe pressure, fullness, squeezing, pain, or discomfort in
the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes
- Pain or discomfort that spreads to the shoulders, neck,
arms, or jaw
- Chest pain that gets worse
- Chest pain that doesn’t get better with rest or by taking
- Chest pain that happens along with any of these symptoms:
- Cool, clammy skin or paleness
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
- Dizziness or fainting
- Unexplained weakness or fatigue
- Fast or irregular pulse
Chest pain is the key warning sign of a heart attack. But it may
be confused with other conditions. These include heartburn, pleurisy, and pneumonia.
Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is a heart attack diagnosed?
If you or someone you know has any of the warning signs for a
heart attack, act right away. Call 911 or your local emergency number. Don’t drive
yourself to the hospital or emergency department if you think you are having a heart
Diagnosing a heart attack often happens in an emergency
department. There, a healthcare provider will ask you about your health history and
do a physical exam. You may also need some tests, such as:
This test checks the electrical activity of your heart. It can find signs of a
Blood work. These tests
can find certain proteins that the body may make during a heart attack.
During this test, X-ray dye (contrast medium) is put into your coronary
arteries. Special X-rays (angiograms) are then taken. They show how well blood
is flowing through your heart and blood vessels. The test can find blockages in