Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction)

A heart attack is a life-threatening condition that occurs when blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked, often by a clot. Heart attacks affect men and women equally and are the leading cause of death in the United States.

What causes a heart attack?

Most heart attacks occur when an artery that leads to the heart (a coronary artery) becomes blocked. This denies the heart the oxygen-rich blood it needs. Blockages are often caused by a build-up of plaque in the coronary artery. If a blockage is not cleared quickly, heart muscle can be damaged or die.  

Another cause of heart attack is a severe tightening (vasospasm) of a coronary artery, which cuts off blood flow. This can happen even in coronary arteries that haven’t been narrowed by plaque. Smoking, drug use or exposure to extreme cold can cause this kind of tightening.

Symptoms of a heart attack

The classic heart attack symptoms are sudden and severe chest pain. However, symptoms can vary from person to person. They can range from mild to severe and may differ each time you have a heart attack.

Common symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Pain or discomfort in the center or left side of your chest
  • Discomfort in your arms, back, shoulders, neck or jaw
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweaty or clammy skin
  • Severe fatigue that can last several days
  • Indigestion like symptoms
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness

Note that heart attack symptoms may be different in women. In some cases, women may experience no chest pain at all. Women may attribute symptoms like nausea, sweating, or lightheadedness to stress or the flu, but these can be signs of a heart attack.

How are heart attacks diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose a heart attack by evaluating your symptoms, your medical history, and the results from several tests such as:

How are heart attacks treated?

Treatments for heart attacks work best when given soon after symptoms occur, sometimes even before a diagnosis is confirmed.

Treatment options include:

  • Oxygen therapy
  • Aspirin
  • Nitroglycerin
  • Percutaneous Coronary Intervention (PCI)
  • Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting (CABG)