Yasmine Ali, MD, is board-certified in cardiology. She is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an award-winning physician writer.
A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when an atherosclerotic plaque in a coronary artery suddenly ruptures. The plaque rupture triggers the clotting mechanism within the artery, causing a blood clot to form and blocking the blood flow. If the blockage is severe enough, the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die and a heart attack occurs.
Classic symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain, shortness of breath, and heightened anxiety, although some people may experience a different set of symptoms. A heart attack is a life-threatening emergency that requires immediate medical attention.
The majority of people who have experienced a heart attack describe a fullness, tightness, burning sensation, or intense pressure in the chest. Some have also reported a sense of “impending doom.” The symptoms may come on suddenly, begin gradually and come and go, or feel like a dull, steady ache.
A heart attack can come on suddenly and last around 30 minutes, or it can come on more gradually, with symptoms such as chest pain coming and going over the course of a few hours. Because a heart attack can be life-threatening if not treated immediately, it is important to know the warning signs and get emergency help if you think you might be having a heart attack.
Symptoms of a heart attack most commonly include chest pain, nausea or vomiting, stiffness or numbness in the neck or ams, and shortness of breath. The symptoms are often different in women, and may include extreme fatigue, pain in both arms (men usually have it in only one arm), and anxiety.
Lifestyle factors that can reduce your risk of a heart attack include quitting smoking, getting regular aerobic exercise, keeping conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol under control, and eating a healthy diet low in saturated fats. Once someone has had a heart attack, they may be prescribed medications such as aspirin and statins to help prevent another one.
The most common cause of a heart attack is the rupture of a plaque–a build-up of lipids and other substances in the coronary artery. This rupture causes the formation of a blood clot, which can impede blood flow to the heart. Other potential causes include blood clotting disorders, atrial fibrillation, and viral infections of the heart.
Blood that has coagulated or clotted. Clotting is crucial for healing a skin wound by forming a scab, for example, but blood clots that occur within arteries or veins can be dangerous and even life-threatening if they block the flow of blood to essential organs. When a blood clot forms in a coronary artery and blocks blood flow to the heart, it can cause a heart attack.
The pressure of circulating blood on the walls of arteries. Blood pressure is divided into systolic pressure (the top number) and diastolic pressure (the bottom number). The normal range for blood pressure for adults is less than 120 over 80 (120/80) millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). Having high blood pressure (sometimes called hypertension) can raise your risk of a heart attack.
An umbrella term encompassing several different conditions and diseases that affect the heart, arteries, and blood vessels, including those that supply the brain. Heart attack, heart failure, arrhythmia, high blood pressure, heart valve disease, and stroke are all forms of cardiovascular disease.
The two main blood vessels that supply blood to the heart muscle (myocardium). If the coronary arteries become partially blocked as the result of a plaque breaking off and causing a blood clot, part of the heart muscle can die, resulting in a heart attack.
A disease characterized by a blockage in the coronary arteries, causing a blood clot to form that restricts blood flow to the heart. If a blockage is severe, it can cause the heart muscle supplied by that artery to die. This is called a heart attack, or a myocardial infarction.
A form of lipids, or fat, that circulate in the bloodstream. There are two main types of cholesterol—high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). When LDL levels in the blood get too high, your risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or peripheral vascular disease is significantly increased.
A build-up of lipids and other substances in the artery. When a plaque ruptures, a blood clot forms immediately in response and impedes blood flow to the heart, potentially resulting in a heart attack.
American Heart Association. What Is Cardiovascular Disease?
American Heart Association. Warning Signs of a Heart Attack