Heart Attack FAQs

A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, occurs when a coronary artery, a blood vessel that delivers blood to the heart, is suddenly blocked and cannot supply the heart with blood and oxygen. This causes damage and gradual death of the heart muscle and requires immediate treatment in order to save the patient's life. Heart attacks are the leading cause of death in the United States.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

The first symptoms of a heart attack can vary, but often include chest pain or discomfort. This may feel like fullness, pressure, squeezing or pain and can come and go every few minutes. Other common heart attack symptoms include:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Fainting
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Anxiety
  • Jaw pain
  • Arm, shoulder or back pain

In addition to the above symptoms, women may experience other symptoms, such as:

  • Heartburn
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Light headedness
  • Clammy skin

Other people may experience no symptoms at all, as up to one quarter of all heart attacks are silent.

What causes a heart attack?

A heart attack is usually caused by atherosclerosis, a buildup of cholesterol, fat and other substances within the coronary arteries. As these substances, known collectively as plaque, build up, they cause the artery to narrow making proper blood flow more difficult. This condition is known as coronary artery disease. A blood clot can also form from the plaque and may block the artery entirely, preventing blood from reaching the heart and causing damage to the muscle. A heart attack can also be caused by other conditions, such as:

  • Coronary artery dissection, a tear in the heart artery
  • Coronary artery spasm due to drug use
  • Coronary embolism

Who is at risk for a heart attack?

There are several factors that can increase the risk of a heart attack by contributing to the buildup of plaque within the coronary arteries. Some of these factors include:

  • Age
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Physical inactivity
  • Stress
  • Alcohol
  • Illegal drug use
  • Family history

How is a heart attack treated?

A heart attack is an emergency that requires immediate treatment. Anyone experiencing symptoms of a heart attack should call 911 right away. Early treatment of a heart attack can help minimize damage to the heart muscle.

Treatment for a heart attack usually includes cardiopulmonary resuscitation on (CPR) to deliver oxygen to the body and brain, aspirin to prevent blood clots, thrombolytics to break up any existing clots, and nitroglycerin to treat chest pain. Surgery to open blocked arteries, either through balloon angioplasty or a bypass, may be needed in some cases.

What steps can be taken to prevent a heart attack?

There are many ways to prevent a heart attack, even if the patient has already had one. This can be done through lifestyle changes and medication that will help lower the risk for artery clogging as well as help the heart recover from any previous damage. These risks can be lowered by:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy diet
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Lowering stress levels
  • Taking blood-thinning medications
  • Controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Controlling diabetes
  • Use of beta blockers and ACE inhibitors

Additional Resources