STEMI Heart Attacks and Why They Are So Dangerous

The Most Severe Type of Heart Attack

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An ST elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) is a heart attack that occurs when a major artery feeding into the heart is completely blocked, changing blood flow to the organ and the electrical current in the lower chambers.

A STEMI is the most serious and deadly type of heart attack. Between 4% and 24% of those hospitalized for one die from the condition.

STEMI symptoms may include upper body pain and discomfort, as well as exhaustion and nausea. Treatment will vary, but may include drugs that stabilize the heart or reduce blood clots, oxygen therapy, or procedures, such as an angioplasty or stenting.

This article explains what a STEMI heart attack is. It also covers symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.

What Is a STEMI Heart Attack?

STEMI is the most severe type of acute coronary syndrome (ACS), which describes conditions where there is a rapid decrease of blood flow to the heart.

STEMI pathophysiology, or how one comes about, is as follows:

  • A fatty substance called plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart.
  • This stress triggers a tear in the artery, which blood clots, or clumps of blood, cover up.
  • This causes a complete blockage in the artery.
  • When blocked, the part of the heart muscle serviced by that artery will quickly suffer from a lack of oxygen, also called ischemia.
  • Some of the heart muscle will begin to die resulting in a myocardial infarction, or heart attack.

STEMI vs. NSTEMI vs. Unstable Angina

Other, less severe, types of ACS are notably different from the STEMI type. They include:

Types of Acute Coronary Syndrome

 Verywell / JR Bee

Why It's Called a STEMI Heart Attack

A STEMI is so-named because it causes an increase in the ST segment of an electrocardiogram (ECG)—a diagnostic test that uses sensors to monitor the heart's electrical activity and records it on a line graph.

The ST segment refers to a part of the test that shows the heart's activity in a wave pattern. When a person has the most severe type of heart attack, this segment will appear abnormally elevated, instead of flat. This indicates a total blockage.

Symptoms of a STEMI Heart Attack

Symptoms can vary from person to person. Some STEMI symptoms may include: 

  • Pain around the shoulder blades, arm, chest, jaw, left arm, or upper stomach
  • Pain or pressure around chest area, also known as angina
  • Sweating, or feeling out of breath
  • Discomfort or tightness in the neck or arm
  • Indigestion, which is discomfort in the stomach and chest
  • Heartburn, which describes when you have an acidic taste in your mouth and upper chest discomfort
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue or sudden exhaustion
  • Dizziness
  • Increased or irregular heart rate

Anyone who is at risk of a heart attack should pay close attention to any unusual symptoms and seek medical attention right away if any are noticed.

Symptoms of ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI).
Verywell / Laura Porter

How STEMI Is Diagnosed

To diagnose a STEMI, a healthcare provider will go over your symptoms. They will also run diagnostic tests like an ECG, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which creates a detailed image of your heart. In addition, your healthcare provider may also run blood tests, known as cardiac biomarkers, to check for heart muscle damage.

STEMI Treatment

Because a STEMI is a severe heart attack, treatment will begin as soon as possible. Keep in mind, the longer it takes to unblock the artery, the more damage there may be. 

STEMI treatment may include:

After treatment, the recovery period begins. This may include an exercise-based rehabilitation program, dietary changes, and the use of medications like blood thinners, which prevent blood clots.

STEMI Heart Attack Prognosis

STEMI is the most deadly type of heart attack. Mortality rates, or the amount of people who die due to this type of heart attack, differ by the location of the blockage, as well as other factors, such as age, sex, risk factors, and medical history.

In general, the hospital mortality rate for:

  • A STEMI ranges from 4% to 24%
  • An anterior STEMI is 21.4%
  • An inferior localized STEMI is 12.2%

Keep in mind that this number can rise to about 38% if an individual experiences a complication, like sudden cardiac arrest, before making it to the hospital.

Other factors that increase the risk of death from STEMI include history of:

  • A prior heart attack
  • Hypertension
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Heart failure
  • Smoking

In addition, the older a person is, the more likely STEMI will be fatal. Research shows people age 80 and older have a 45.9% mortality rate from STEMI.

How Long Can You Live After a STEMI Heart Attack?

Individuals who survive past the year mark have a life expectancy similar to that of the general population.

How Do You Avoid a STEMI Heart Attack?

While you can't control all factors that help prevent a STEMI heart attack, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk, including:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Decreasing alcohol intake
  • Quitting smoking
  • Reducing stress
  • Managing cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes

Summary

STEMI is the most severe type of acute coronary syndrome. With this type of heart attack, there is a complete blockage in one of the coronary arteries.

Symptoms of a STEMI may vary from person to person, but generally include discomfort, pain, or pressure around the chest area.

To diagnose a STEMI, your healthcare provider will go over your symptoms, as well as run various diagnostic tests. Treatment will begin as soon as possible and may include various medications and procedures to help unblock the artery and reduce discomfort.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can stress cause a STEMI heart attack?

    Long-term stress is not a direct cause of a STEMI heart attack, but it is linked to an increased risk of one or other cardiovascular disease events.

  • How long does it take to recover from a STEMI heart attack?

    In general, recovery from a STEMI will take several months. Cardiac rehabilitation and exercise will play a key role during this time.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Richard N. Fogoros, MD
Richard N. Fogoros, MD, is a retired professor of medicine and board-certified in internal medicine, clinical cardiology, and clinical electrophysiology.