What Happens During a Heart Attack?

Illustration of heart attackWhat Is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack happens when the blood flow to your heart is suddenly reduced or cut off. Your blood carries oxygen to the heart. During a heart attack, your heart muscle doesn’t get the oxygen it needs. Without oxygen, the heart muscle can be damaged or destroyed.

Getting your blood flow restored quickly is the key to recovery. Get medical help right away if you think you’re having symptoms of a heart attack.

Causes of a Heart Attack

A buildup of cholesterol and a fatty material called plaque in your artery walls usually causes a heart attack. The buildup of plaque takes years.

Most heart attacks happen when plaque breaks off your artery wall. A blood clot then forms around the broken-off plaque, blocking the artery.

Heart Attack Symptoms

Men and women have different symptoms, but both may have pain, pressure, or discomfort in the chest. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, sweating, fainting, and nausea. You may also have pain in the neck, jaw, or shoulders.

Men are more likely to break out in a cold sweat and feel pain move down the left arm during a heart attack.

Symptoms in Women

About 435,000 women have heart attacks in the U.S. each year. The symptoms can be so mild they are often dismissed as something minor.

Women are more likely than men to have back or neck pain, heartburn, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and indigestion. They may also feel extremely tired, light-headed, or dizzy. Flu-like symptoms and sleep problems may also occur 2 weeks before a heart attack.

What to Do

If you or someone you’re with has symptoms that might be a heart attack, call 911 right away. You’re more likely to survive if you get treated within 90 minutes.

While you’re calling 911, the person with heart attack symptoms should chew and swallow an aspirin to lower the risk of a blood clot (unless they’re allergic). If the person is unconscious, hands-only CPR can double his chances of survival.

Diagnosis of a Heart Attack

An EKG, which checks your heart’s electrical activity, can help doctors see if you’re having a heart attack. It can also show which artery is clogged.

Doctors can also diagnose a heart attack with blood tests that measure the proteins that are released when heart muscle cells die.

Heart Attack Treatment

Doctors will move quickly to restore the flow of blood to your heart. You may get drugs that dissolve blood clots in your arteries.

You’ll likely get a procedure called a coronary angiogram. Doctors put a thin tube with a balloon on the end through your artery. It opens up the blockage by flattening the plaque in your arteries. Most times doctors place a small, mesh tube called a stent in your artery to make sure it stays open.

Risks for Heart Attack

Your odds of having a heart attack go up with age, and men have a greater risk than women. A family history of heart disease also increases your risk.

Smoking can raise your risk of a heart attack. So can having high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, and being obese. Other things that can raise your risk of a heart attack are a lack of exercise, depression, and stress.

Prevent a Heart Attack

If you smoke, stop. It will immediately cut your chances of a heart attack by a third.

Get exercise and eat right. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Eat plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains to keep your arteries healthy.

Taking a daily aspirin helps some people prevent a heart attack. Talk to your doctor to see if it’s right for you.

Find positive ways to manage stress.

Life After a Heart Attack

If you’re in the hospital for a heart attack, you may come home in just a few days. You can resume your normal activities after a few weeks.

Cardiac rehab can help you recover. You’ll get a fitness program that’s made just for you, and learn how to keep up a heart-healthy lifestyle. Counselors give you support if you’re depressed or worried about getting a second heart attack.

© 2014 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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