A blockage of blood flow to the heart can damage or destroy heart muscle.
A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood to the heart is severely reduced or blocked. The blockage is usually due to a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances in the heart (coronary) arteries. The fatty, cholesterol-containing deposits are called plaques. The process of plaque buildup is called atherosclerosis.
Sometimes, a plaque can rupture and form a clot that blocks blood flow. A lack of blood flow can damage or destroy part of the heart muscle.
A heart attack is also called a myocardial infarction.
Prompt treatment is needed for a heart attack to prevent death. Call 911 or emergency medical help if you think you might be having a heart attack.
A heart attack occurs when an artery that sends blood and oxygen to the heart is blocked. Fatty, cholesterol-containing deposits build up over time, forming plaques in the heart's arteries. If a plaque ruptures, a blood clot can form. The clot can block arteries, causing a heart attack. During a heart attack, a lack of blood flow causes the tissue in the heart muscle to die.
Symptoms of a heart attack vary. Some people have mild symptoms. Others have severe symptoms. Some people have no symptoms.
Common heart attack symptoms include:
Women may have atypical symptoms such as brief or sharp pain felt in the neck, arm or back. Sometimes, the first symptom sign of a heart attack is sudden cardiac arrest.
Some heart attacks strike suddenly. But many people have warning signs and symptoms hours, days or weeks in advance. Chest pain or pressure (angina) that keeps happening and doesn't go away with rest may be an early warning sign. Angina is caused by a temporary decrease in blood flow to the heart.
Get help right away if you think you're having a heart attack. Take these steps:
Take aspirin, if recommended. Taking aspirin during a heart attack may reduce heart damage by preventing blood clotting.
Aspirin can interact with other drugs. Don't take an aspirin unless your care provider or emergency medical personnel say to do so. Don't delay calling 911 to take an aspirin. Call for emergency help first.
If someone is unconscious and you think they're having a heart attack, first call 911 or your local emergency number. Then check if the person is breathing and has a pulse. If the person isn't breathing or you don't find a pulse, only then should you begin CPR.
Coronary artery disease causes most heart attacks. In coronary artery disease, one or more of the heart (coronary) arteries are blocked. This is usually due to cholesterol-containing deposits called plaques. Plaques can narrow the arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart.
If a plaque breaks open, it can cause a blood clot in the heart.
A heart attack may be caused by a complete or partial blockage of a heart (coronary) artery. One way to classify heart attacks is whether an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) shows some specific changes (ST elevation) that require emergency invasive treatment. Your health care provider may use ECG results to describe these types of heart attacks.
Not all heart attacks are caused by blocked arteries. Other causes include:
Heart attack risk factors include:
Heart attack complications are often due to heart muscle damage. Potential complications of a heart attack include:
It's never too late to take steps to prevent a heart attack — even if you've already had one. Here are ways to prevent a heart attack.
It's also a good idea to learn CPR properly so you can help someone who's having a heart attack. Consider taking an accredited first-aid training course, including CPR and how to use an automated external defibrillator (AED).
Ideally, a health care provider should screen you during regular checkups for risk factors that can lead to a heart attack.
A heart attack is often diagnosed in an emergency setting. If you've had or are having a heart attack, care providers will take immediate steps to treat your condition. If you're able to answer questions, you may be asked about your symptoms and medical history.
Diagnosis of a heart attack includes checking blood pressure, pulse and temperature. Tests are done to see how the heart is beating and to check overall heart health.
Tests to diagnose a heart attack include:
Each minute after a heart attack, more heart tissue is damaged or dies. Urgent treatment is needed to fix blood flow and restore oxygen levels. Oxygen is given immediately. Specific heart attack treatment depends on whether there's a partial or complete blockage of blood flow.
Medications to treat a heart attack might include:
If you've had a heart attack, a surgery or procedure may be done to open a blocked artery. Surgeries and procedures to treat a heart attack include:
Coronary angioplasty and stenting. This procedure is done to open clogged heart arteries. It may also be called percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI). If you've had a heart attack, this procedure is often done during a procedure to find blockages (cardiac catheterization).
During angioplasty, a heart doctor (cardiologist) guides a thin, flexible tube (catheter) to the narrowed part of the heart artery. A tiny balloon is inflated to help widen the blocked artery and improve blood flow.
A small wire mesh tube (stent) may be placed in the artery during angioplasty. The stent helps keep the artery open. It lowers the risk of the artery narrowing again. Some stents are coated with a medication that helps keep the arteries open.
Cardiac rehabilitation is a personalized exercise and education program that teaches ways to improve heart health after heart surgery. It focuses on exercise, a heart-healthy diet, stress management and a gradual return to usual activities. Most hospitals offer cardiac rehabilitation starting in the hospital. The program typically continues for a few weeks or months after you return home.
People who attend cardiac rehab after a heart attack generally live longer and are less likely to have another heart attack or complications from the heart attack. If cardiac rehab is not recommended during your hospital stay, ask your provider about it.
To improve heart health, take the following steps:
Having a heart attack is scary. Talking about your feelings with your care provider, a family member or a friend might help. Or consider talking to a mental health care provider or joining a support group. Support groups let you connect with others who have been through similar events.
If you feel sad, scared or depressed, tell your care provider. Cardiac rehabilitation programs can help prevent or treat depression after a heart attack.
Some people worry about having sex after a heart attack. Most people can safely return to sexual activity after recovery. But talk to your care provider first. When you can resume sex may depend on your physical comfort, emotional readiness and previous sexual activity.
Some heart medications can affect sexual function. If you're having problems with sexual dysfunction, talk to your care provider.
A heart attack usually is diagnosed in an emergency setting. However, if you're concerned about your risk of a heart attack, talk to your care provider. A cardiovascular risk assessment can be done to determine your level of risk.
You may be referred to a doctor trained in heart diseases (cardiologist).
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.
When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet. You might need to avoid food or drink for a while before a cholesterol test, for example.
Make a list of:
Take a friend or relative along, if possible, to help you remember the information you're given.
Some questions to ask your provider about heart attack prevention include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
Your health care provider is likely to ask you questions, including:
It's never too early to make healthy lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, eating healthy foods and becoming more active. These are important steps in preventing heart attacks and improving overall health.