Every year, more than 1 million Americans suffer a myocardial infarction, more commonly known as a heart attack. Heart attacks are typically a result of coronary artery disease, a type of heart disease that occurs when fatty plaque builds up in the walls of the coronary arteries.
Learn more about heart attack in our Cardiac Media Library.
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack usually occurs because there is a blockage in the coronary artery, created by a blood clot or ruptured plaque. This blockage cuts off blood flow in a coronary artery, leading to a heart attack. The process can occur in different ways:
Atherosclerosis. This is when the artery wall becomes coated with a fatty, sticky substance over time and plaque develops. Blood may not be flowing freely enough through the coronary artery to reach the heart muscle.
Blood clots. A blood clot develops suddenly on the plaque, blocking blood flow so that oxygen cannot reach the heart muscle.
Rupture. A plaque within the artery wall ruptures abruptly. This creates a blockage that prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching the heart muscle. The muscle begins to die, resulting in pain and permanent damage. The damage may also cause an irregular heart rhythm, known as an arrhythmia.
Heart attack warning signs
Both men and women may experience certain signs that they are having a heart attack. These include:
- Chest pain with shortness of breath
- Pain in one or both arms
- Pain in your back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Pressure, squeezing or tightness in the chest
Heart attack in women: unique symptoms
Both men and women can experience the common symptoms of a heart attack listed above or other less common symptoms. Sometimes, people can have a heart attack without ever feeling chest pain. However, women are more likely to experience certain unique heart attack symptoms. These symptoms include:
- Nausea without chest pain
- Shortness of breath or dizziness without chest pain
- Unexplained anxiety, cold sweats or paleness
- Exertion with fatigue or change in functional abilities
Heart attack treatment
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 immediately. Physicians treat a heart attack by:
- Administering drugs (called thrombolytics or “clot busters”) in the emergency department.
- Performing an immediate balloon angioplasty procedure. Learn more about angioplasty and stents.
Your heart physician will evaluate you. The evaluation may include electrocardiogram monitoring, echocardiogram or a stress test. The damaged area from the heart attack will eventually form a scar, a process that may take six weeks. Acute intervention (such as clot busters or angioplasty) should limit the amount of permanent scarring to the heart muscle.
Heart attack signs: Calling 911
If you have even a slight suspicion that you are having a heart attack, call 911. You should not wait more than five minutes to call, and you should avoid driving to the emergency room yourself. Calling 911 and traveling in an ambulance ensures that you will get to the hospital and treated in the fastest way possible.
Other benefits to calling 911 include:
Immediate treatment. Emergency personnel can begin treatment immediately, even before you arrive at the hospital.
Heart-saving equipment. Your heart may stop beating during a heart attack. Emergency personnel have the equipment and training needed to restart it.
- Rapid response. Heart attack patients who arrive by ambulance tend to receive faster treatment on their arrival at the hospital.
The importance of rapid care
If you think you’re experiencing heart trouble of any kind, the most important thing to remember is that “time is muscle.” In other words, DON’T DELAY in seeking medical assistance. Even if you’re not certain the problem is your heart (symptoms can be similar to indigestion), call 911 and go to the emergency room right away. Immediate medical attention is critical to helping you avoid permanent, irreversible heart damage.
Keep in mind that sometimes heart attacks occur with very few symptoms. Some may even generate such minimal pain that they are called “silent heart attacks.” Take any warning sign seriously. Anyone with heart attack warning signs should call 911 and seek medical treatment right away.
Minutes matter. Fast action can save lives and preserve heart muscle, preventing later debilitation.