Heart attack

By Medically reviewed by hellodoktor


What is a heart attack?

A heart attack (or myocardial infarction) is a serious medical condition that occurs when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked, most often due to a build-up of fat, cholesterol and other substances, which form a plaque in the arteries that feed the heart (coronary arteries). The interrupted blood flow can lead to destroy or damage part of the heart muscle. A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, can be fatal, but treatment has improved dramatically over the years. Hence, it is vital to call 911 or emergency medical help if you think you might be having a heart attack.

How common is a heart attack?

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of these, 525,000 are a first heart attack and 210,000 happen in people who have already had a heart attack.

However, it can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Some common signs and symptoms of heart attack may include:

  • Pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing or aching sensation in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw or back
  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness

It is noticed that not all people with heart attacks have the same symptoms or experience the same severity of symptoms. Some people have mild pain; but others have more severe pain. Some people have no symptoms, while for others, the first sign may be sudden cardiac arrest. However, the more signs and symptoms you have, the greater the likelihood you are having a heart attack.

Some heart attacks strike suddenly, but fortunately many people have warning signs and symptoms hours, days or weeks in advance. The earliest warning may be recurrent chest pain (angina) that is triggered by exertion and relieved by rest.

A heart attack is different from a condition in which your heart suddenly stops such as sudden cardiac arrest, which occurs when an electrical disturbance disrupts your heart’s pumping action and causes blood to stop flowing to the rest of your body. A heart attack can cause cardiac arrest, but it’s not the only cause.

When should I see my doctor?

Act immediately. Some people wait too long because they don’t recognize the important signs and symptoms. Take these steps:

  • Call for emergency medical help. If you suspect you’re having a heart attack, don’t hesitate. Immediately call 911 or your local emergency number. If you don’t have access to emergency medical services, have someone drive you to the nearest hospital.
  • Drive yourself only if there are no other options. Because your condition can worsen, driving yourself puts you and others at risk.
  • Take nitroglycerin, if prescribed to you by a doctor. Take it as instructed while awaiting emergency help.
  • Take aspirin, if recommended. Taking aspirin during a heart attack could reduce heart damage by helping to keep your blood from clotting.

Aspirin can interact with other medications, however, so don’t take an aspirin unless your doctor or emergency medical personnel recommend it. Don’t delay calling an ambulance to take an aspirin. Call for emergency help first.


What causes a heart attack?

A heart attack happens when one or more of your coronary arteries become blocked. Over time, a coronary artery can narrow from the buildup of various substances such as cholesterol (atherosclerosis). This condition, known as coronary artery disease, causes most heart attacks.

During a heart attack, one of these plaques can rupture and spill cholesterol and other substances into the bloodstream. A blood clot forms at the site of the rupture. If the clot is large enough, it can completely block the flow of blood through the coronary artery.

Beside coronary artery disease, another cause of a heart attack is a spasm of a coronary artery that shuts down blood flow to part of the heart muscle. Use of tobacco and of illicit drugs, such as cocaine, can cause a life-threatening spasm.

A heart attack can also happen due to a tear in the heart artery (spontaneous coronary artery dissection).

Risk factors

What increases my risk for a heart attack?

There are a great number of risks causing heart attack. However, these following risks are considered as the most common ones, include:

  • Age

Men age 45 or older and women age 55 or older are more likely to have a heart attack than are younger men and women.

  • Tobacco

Smoking and long-term exposure to secondhand smoke increase the risk of a heart attack.

  • High blood pressure

Over time, high blood pressure can damage arteries that feed your heart by accelerating atherosclerosis.

  • High blood cholesterol or triglyceride levels

A high level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) is most likely to narrow arteries. A high level of triglycerides, a type of blood fat related to your diet, also ups your risk of heart attack.

  • Diabetes

Insulin, a hormone secreted by your pancreas, allows your body to use glucose, a form of sugar. Having diabetes — not producing enough insulin or not responding to insulin properly — causes your body’s blood sugar levels to rise. Diabetes, especially uncontrolled, increases your risk of a heart attack.

  • Family history of heart attack

If your siblings, parents or grandparents have had early heart attacks (by age 55 for male relatives and by age 65 for female relatives), you may be at increased risk.

  • Lack of physical activity

An inactive lifestyle contributes to high blood cholesterol levels and obesity. People who get regular aerobic exercise have better cardiovascular fitness, which decreases their overall risk of heart attack.

  • Obesity

Obesity is associated with high blood cholesterol levels, high triglyceride levels, high blood pressure and diabetes.

  • Stress

You may respond to stress in ways that can increase your risk of a heart attack.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is a heart attack diagnosed?

In case, you are in an emergency situation of a heart attack, you’ll be asked to describe your symptoms and have your blood pressure, pulse and temperature checked. You’ll be hooked up to a heart monitor and will almost immediately have tests to see if you’re having a heart attack.

Tests will help check if your signs and symptoms, such as chest pain, indicate a heart attack or another condition. These tests include:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)

This first test done to diagnose a heart attack records the electrical activity of your heart via electrodes attached to your skin. Impulses are recorded as waves displayed on a monitor or printed on paper. Because injured heart muscle doesn’t conduct electrical impulses normally, the ECG may show that a heart attack has occurred or is in progress.

  • Blood tests.

Certain heart enzymes slowly leak out into your blood if your heart has been damaged by a heart attack. Emergency room doctors will take samples of your blood to test for the presence of these enzymes.

If you’ve had a heart attack or one is occurring, doctors will take immediate steps to treat your condition. You may also undergo these additional tests:

  • Chest X-ray

An X-ray image of your chest allows your doctor to check the size of your heart and its blood vessels and to look for fluid in your lungs.

  • Echocardiogram

During this test, sound waves directed at your heart from a wandlike device (transducer) held on your chest bounce off your heart and are processed electronically to provide video images of your heart.

  • Coronary catheterization (angiogram)

A liquid dye is injected into the arteries of your heart through a long, thin tube (catheter) that’s fed through an artery, usually in your leg or groin, to the arteries in your heart. The dye makes the arteries visible on X-ray, revealing areas of blockage.

  • Cardiac computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

These tests can be used to diagnose heart problems, including the extent of damage from heart attacks.

How is a heart attack treated?

It is proven that the main way to prevent heart damage is to restore blood flow quickly.


Medications given to treat a heart attack include:

  • Aspirin

Aspirin reduces blood clotting, thus helping maintain blood flow through a narrowed artery.

  • Thrombolytics

These drugs, also called clotbusters, help dissolve a blood clot that’s blocking blood flow to your heart.

  • Antiplatelet agents

These include medications, such as clopidogrel (Plavix) and others, called platelet aggregation inhibitors.

  • Other blood-thinning medications

You’ll likely be given other medications, such as heparin, to make your blood less “sticky” and less likely to form clots.

  • Pain relievers

You may receive a pain reliever, such as morphine, to ease your discomfort.

  • Nitroglycerin

This medication, used to treat chest pain (angina), can help improve blood flow to the heart by widening (dilating) the blood vessels.

  • Beta blockers

These medications help relax your heart muscle, slow your heartbeat and decrease blood pressure, making your heart’s job easier.

Surgical and other procedures

In addition to medications, you may need to undergo one of the following procedures to treat your heart attack:

  • Coronary angioplasty and stenting

Doctors insert a long, thin tube (catheter) that’s passed through an artery, usually in your leg or groin, to a blocked artery in your heart. If you’ve had a heart attack, this procedure is often done immediately after a cardiac catheterization, a procedure used to locate blockages.

  • Coronary artery bypass surgery

In some cases, doctors may perform emergency bypass surgery at the time of a heart attack. If possible, your doctor may suggest that you have bypass surgery after your heart has had time — about three to seven days — to recover from your heart attack.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage heart attack?

Following these useful tips may help you avoid this disease:

  • Avoid smoking
  • Control your blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Get regular medical checkups
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet
  • Manage diabetes
  • Control stress
  • Limit using  alcohol

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Review Date: June 8, 2018 | Last Modified: September 13, 2019

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