Heart Attack: Basics to Know

Health Professional

The heart is a muscle which requires oxygen to survive. When blood flow delivering oxygen to the heart muscle is cut off or severely reduced a heart attack occurs. Blood flow can be cut off or severely reduced by the build-up of arterial plaque (i.e. fat, cholesterol, and other substances that adhere to the artery walls). This build up eventually causes arteries to narrow and potentially close completely. This process is known as atherosclerosis and occurs over many years.

As plaque builds up it can eventually rupture or break open inside the artery, causing a blood clot to form. If the blood clot becomes large enough, it can reduce or completely block the flow of oxygen rich blood to the heart muscle.

Ischemia is when the heart becomes deprived of needed oxygen and nutrients. If blood flow to the heart is not quickly restored, ischemia leads to damage or death of part of the heart muscle. This is a heart attack and the healthy heart muscle tissue becomes replaced with scar tissue.

Additional terms for a heart attack include:

  • Myocardial infarction
  • Acute myocardial infarction
  • Acute coronary syndrome
  • Coronary thrombosis
  • Coronary occlusion

A heart attack is a medical emergency. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone in the United States has a heart attack every 43 seconds and every 60 seconds someone dies due to a heart disease-related event.

Heart attack treatment

Treatment for a heart attack is most effective if delivered immediately. Call 9-1-1 right away if you suspect you or someone you are with is having a heart attack. Quick action can save your life and reduce heart damage.

Treatment administered will depend on the individual and ranges from lifestyle changes to cardiac rehabilitation to medications, stents, and bypass surgery.

Heart attack symptoms

Symptoms can vary between individuals and especially between men and women. Symptoms can include tightness or pain in the chest, pain spreading to the shoulders, neck or arms, anxiety, and irregular heart rate.

Again, quick action is life-saving. Don’t wait and don’t decide to drive yourself to the hospital. Call 9-1-1 immediately if you suspect you or someone you are with is having a heart attack.