Heart Attack

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart muscle is stopped or decreased. It is an emergency situation, and needs medical attention at once to prevent further damage to the heart or death.

Understanding the Heart


It is important to know the signs and symptoms of an impending or occurring heart attack so medical attention can be sought immediately. Half of all people who suffer from a heart attack die, and half of those who die do so within one hour of the onset of symptoms. Symptoms of heart attack include:

  • Chest pain (angina pectoris) – Discomfort feels like pressure, squeezing or pain, and lasts more than a few minutes, or comes and goes.
  • Discomfort in other parts of the body – May feel pain or numbness in one or both arms, the back, neck, or jaw.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Cold sweat

Know the Signs of a Heart Attack

Risk Factors of Heart Attack

Risk factors for heart attack vary widely. Some risk factors are controllable, but some are not. Uncontrollable risk factors include:

  • Age – Men over age 45 and women over age 55 are more likely to suffer a heart attack.
  • Heredity – Family history of early heart disease may make some more prone to heart attack.
  • Personal history – History of coronary artery disease increases risk of heart attack.

There are also risk factors shaped by lifestyle. Controlling any of these risk factors can help a person avoid a heart attack, or increase their chances of surviving one:

Causes of Heart Attack

A heart attack is typically brought on as the result of other heart disease. Most often, it is coronary artery disease that will cause a heart attack. In coronary artery disease, the coronary arteries harden and narrow due to the buildup of plaque. Eventually the plaque causes a blockage, restricting blood flow to the heart muscle, and causing a heart attack.

Another, although less common, cause of heart attack is a severe spasm of the coronary artery. A spasm can be caused by certain drugs (such as cocaine), stress, or smoking.

Diagnosing Heart Attack

Your medical team will begin trying to diagnose and treat your heart attack as soon as emergency medical personnel arrive on the scene. Diagnosis and treatment will continue in the emergency room. Your doctor will review your symptoms, medical history, family history, and will prescribe various tests to determine the cause of your symptoms and the best treatment. Tests include:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) – Measures rate and regularity of heart beat
  • Blood tests – Measures presence and amount of enzymes that are released into the blood when cells die
  • Cardiac catheterization – Measures blood pressure and flow within the heart’s chambers and allows your doctor to examine the arteries by x-ray
  • Coronary angiography – Performed in conjunction with a cardiac catheterization. A dye is inserted into the catheter and allows the doctor to see if and where there are any blockages

Treatment Options

Once it has been determined that you are having or have had a heart attack, your doctor will begin treatment immediately to stabilize your heart, restore blood flow, prevent further damage and prevent additional heart attacks.


Medication can be used very effectively in restoring blood flow to the heart. Medications include:

  • Thrombolytic drugs – Dissolve blood clots that may be blocking blood flow to the heart. Must be given within one hour of start of symptoms to be effective
  • Beta blockers – Reduce workload on the heart by slowing heart rate, reducing blood pressure and correcting irregular heartbeat
  • Nitrates (nitroglycerin) – Relax blood vessels and reduces chest pain
  • Anticoagulants – Prevent formation of blood clots


Surgical procedures can also be performed to open or bypass blocked or narrowed arteries. The most common procedures are:

  • Angioplasty – Performed to open blocked or narrow coronary arteries. At times, a stent may be used to help keep the artery open
  • Coronary artery bypass grafting – When angioplasty is ineffective or not possible, a coronary artery bypass may be necessary to allow blood to flow to the heart unobstructed
Scroll to Top