Want to know more about what a heart attack is and the signs?

We asked the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute for answers to our questions.

We know: 1-Minute Lesson on Heart Attack

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when the supply of blood and oxygen to an area of heart muscle is blocked, usually by a clot in a coronary artery. Often, this blockage leads to arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat or rhythm) that cause a severe decrease in the pumping function of the heart and may bring about sudden death.

What are the causes of a heart attack?

Most heart attacks are caused by a blood clot that blocks one of the coronary arteries (the blood vessels that bring blood and oxygen to the heart muscle). When blood cannot reach part of your heart, that area starves for oxygen.

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is the most common underlying cause of a heart attack. CAD is the hardening and narrowing of the coronary arteries by the buildup of plaque in the inside walls (atherosclerosis).

What are the signs and symptoms of a heart attack?

Signs and symptoms vary from person to person. In fact, if you have a second heart attack, your symptoms may not be the same as for the first heart attack. Some people have no symptoms. This is called a "silent" heart attack.

The warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack can include:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain. Heart attack pain can sometimes feel like indigestion or heartburn.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Can include pain, discomfort, or numbness in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath. Often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.
  • Other symptoms. May include breaking out in a cold sweat, having nausea and vomiting, or feeling light-headed or dizzy.

What should I do if I think I am having a heart attack?

If you think you may be having a heart attack call 9-1-1 for help. You can begin to receive life-saving treatment in the ambulance on the way to an emergency room.

How is a heart attack treated?

A heart attack is a medical emergency. The sooner treatment begins, the better your chances of recovering. Your treatment may begin in the ambulance or in the emergency room and continue in a special area called a coronary care unit or CCU.

In the hospital, doctors will work quickly to restore blood flow to the heart and continuously monitor your vital signs to detect and treat complications.

Restoring blood flow to the heart is vital to prevent or limit damage to the heart muscle and to prevent another heart attack. The main treatments are:

  1. The use of thrombolytic ("clot-busting") drugs.
  2. Angioplasty procedures to open blocked or narrowed coronary arteries.
  3. Coronary artery bypass surgery using arteries or veins from other areas in your body to bypass your blocked coronary arteries.

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