Heart Attack

What Is a Heart Attack?

Your heart muscle needs oxygen to survive. A heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely. This happens because coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood flow can slowly become narrow from a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances that together are called plaque. When a plaque in a heart artery breaks, a blood clot forms around the plaque. This blood clot can block the blood flow through the heart muscle.


Why Didn’t I Have Any Warning?

One reason there may be no warning signs is that sometimes when a coronary artery becomes narrowed, other nearby vessels that also bring blood to the heart sometimes expand to help compensate. The network of expanded vessels is called collateral circulation and helps protect some people from heart attacks by getting needed blood to the heart. Collateral circulation can also develop after a heart attack to help the heart muscle recover.


Is My Heart Permanently Damaged?

When a heart attack occurs, the heart muscle that has lost blood supply begins to suffer injury. The amount of damage to the heart muscle depends on the size of the area supplied by the blocked artery and the time between injury and treatment.


Will I Recover From My Heart Attack?

The answer is most likely yes. The heart muscle begins to heal soon after a heart attack and usually takes about eight weeks. Scar tissue may form in the damaged area, and that scar tissue does not contract or pump as well as healthy muscle tissue. That means that the extent of damage to the heart muscle can impact how well the heart pumps blood throughout the body. The degree of loss of function depends on the size and location of the scar tissue.


Symptoms of a Heart Attack

If you are having any one of the symptoms described below that lasts for more than 5 minutes, seek emergency treatment (call 9-1-1) without delay. These symptoms could be the signs of a heart attack (also called myocardial infarction or MI), and immediate treatment is essential.

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Angina: Chest pain or discomfort in the center of the chest; also described as a heaviness, tightness, pressure, aching, burning, numbness, fullness, or squeezing feeling that lasts for more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back. It is sometimes mistakenly thought to be indigestion or heartburn.
  • Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body including the arms, left shoulder, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Sweating or “cold sweat”
  • Fullness, indigestion, or choking feeling (may feel like “heartburn”)
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Light-headedness, dizziness, extreme weakness, or anxiety
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats


Women’s Symptoms Sometimes Differ

Although most women and men report symptoms of chest pain with a heart attack, women are slightly more likely than men to report unusual symptoms. Those who have more vague or less typical “heart” symptoms have reported the following:

  • Upper back or shoulder pain
  • Jaw pain or pain spreading to the jaw
  • Pressure or pain in the center of the chest
  • Feeling light-headed
  • Pain that spreads to the arm
  • Unusual fatigue for several days


Use of Aspirin With Unstable Chest Pain

After calling 9-1-1, emergency personnel may tell you to chew one full (325 mg) aspirin slowly, if you do not have a history of aspirin allergy or bleeding. Aspirin is especially effective if taken within 30 minutes after the start of symptoms. Do not take an aspirin for symptoms of stroke. Continue to take your nitroglycerin as prescribed.


Do Not Wait to Get Help

At the first signs of a heart attack, call for emergency treatment (9-1-1). Do not wait for your symptoms to “go away.” Early recognition and treatment of heart attack symptoms can reduce the risk of heart damage and allow treatment to be started immediately. Even if you’re not sure your symptoms are those of a heart attack, you should still be evaluated by a heart doctor.

The best time to treat a heart attack is within one hour of the onset of the first symptoms. When a heart attack occurs, there’s a limited amount of time before significant and long-lasting damage occurs to the heart muscle. If a large area of the heart is injured during the heart attack, full recovery becomes much more difficult.

Studies show that the people who have symptoms of a heart attack often delay, or wait to seek treatment, for longer than seven hours.