When you think of a heart attack, you may have an image in your mind of someone—typically a man—suddenly folded over and clutching their chest. After all, this is how it’s often portrayed in many movies and TV shows. But while this can be the case, the signs of a heart attack may be much more subtle.
Heart attack, also called myocardial infarction, is a leading killer of men and women in the United States. Fortunately, there are treatments that can save lives and help people live an active life. But this hinges on getting timely care.
About heart attack
More than 730,000 Americans suffer a heart attack each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A heart attack happens when the heart’s blood supply is suddenly cut off. When this happens, the heart muscle is starved of oxygen-rich blood. In just a short period of time, part of the heart can be damaged or die and scar tissue forms. That’s why immediate care is critical—it can spare your heart and save your life. If your heart has a lot of damage, it can be very weak.
Most often, heart attacks result from a build up of plaque inside the coronary artery (atherosclerosis). When the plaque breaks away inside of the artery, a blood clot can form, blocking blood flow through a coronary artery. Two less common causes of heart attacks are an intense, prolonged spasm of the coronary artery or a tear in the artery wall (called spontaneous coronary artery dissection), both of which can reduce blood flow to the heart muscle.
Having a heart attack can be scary, and it’s often life-changing. For some people, it’s the scare they need to live a heart healthier life—making a conscious decision to eat better, exercise, manage other risk factors such as high cholesterol or blood pressure and not smoke. For others, they may have lived for years unaware they were even at risk.
Heart attacks are linked to heart failure and possibly life-threatening problems with how the heart beats (arrhythmias).
Who is at risk?
Most heart attacks are due to coronary artery disease. Risk factors for coronary heart disease and heart attack include:
Many of the above risk factors occur together, which can make a heart attack even more likely. Other factors that have been linked to heart attack, but are less in your control include:
Still, there may not be clear reasons why heart attacks occur when they do. There is some evidence that lack of sleep and intense emotional stress, fear, anger or the “fight or flight” response and the accompanying surges of adrenaline can trigger a heart attack in certain people.
What it feels like
The most common symptom for both men and women is chest pain or discomfort; however, women are more likely than men to have other symptoms.
Signs and symptoms may include:
Remember, sudden, crushing chest pain or pressure or tightness aren’t the only signs of a heart attack. In one study, one in three people who had a heart attack had no chest pain; they were more likely to be older, a female or diabetic.
Think you’re having one?
If you think you might be having a heart attack, don’t delay. Call 9-1-1 right away. Delaying treatment can lead to permanent heart damage—even death. An ambulance is the best, safest way to get to the hospital.
Women are more likely to delay seeking help for a variety of reasons, including not wanting to bother others and being unsure about whether they are having a heart attack. It is always better to play it safe and call 9-1-1 right away and let the medical experts determine if you are having a heart attack.
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How is it diagnosed?
Doctors can usually diagnose a heart attack based on a combination of:
What are common treatments?
There are a number of treatment options. Treatments work best when they are given right after symptoms occur—within the first 1-2 hours. Early treatment to open up the blockage can help prevent or limit damage to the heart muscle.
In the acute scenario, when medical personnel think a heart attack is likely, you may be started on:
Once doctors can confirm you are having an acute heart attack, treatments might include:
Life After a Heart Attack
If you’ve already had a heart attack, there are some things you need keep in mind.
Preventing a heart attack -- or another one
There are steps you can take to prevent a heart attack or help strengthen your heart after having one.
Talk to your care team
Your care team knows what’s best in terms of supporting your heart health.
Learn about your condition, and share any concerns or questions with your doctor.
Here are some questions you might want to ask:
To learn more about heart attack, click here. In addition to resources on CardioSmart.org, you can find out more about heart attacks at:
American Heart Association
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute