Last Updated: September 07, 2017

Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction)

Overview

The coronary arteries deliver nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood to the pumping muscles of the heart. A block in the flow of blood to the heart can lead to tissue damage and death - otherwise referred to as a heart attack. Other common names for this condition are myocardial infarction and coronary syndrome. In the United States, there is an estimated one heart attack every 34 seconds. Heart attacks can be fatal and are a leading cause of death in adults.

A damaged or dead heart muscle is associated with various complications. Heart failure is a temporary or permanent condition where the heart can no longer pump ample blood to the body. Damaged heart muscles can also lead to irregular heartbeats (or arrhythmia) and heart valve damage, both of which can become fatal. The key to avoiding potentially permanent and deadly heart damage is to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and seek immediate medical attention.

Causes and Risk Factors

cross section of the heart

The main cause of a heart attack is a blockage in the arteries that carry blood to the heart. This process begins with the gradual buildup of plaque in the arteries (called atherosclerosis), which over time narrows the blood pathways and leads to coronary artery disease. When a rupture occurs at the site of plaque buildup, the body senses the damage and attempts to repair the site by releasing blood-clotting factors. A large clot that fully blocks the path of blood to the heart will result in a heart attack.

Heart attacks may also occur because of severe spasms of the coronary arteries, which are triggered by certain drugs, stress, and smoking. Coronary artery spasms are not common. The following risk factors increase the chances of having a heart attack:

Symptoms

The classic heart attack symptoms are sudden chest pain and tightness, and shortness of breath. It is important to keep in mind that symptoms can vary. In particular, in women the symptoms can vary and can begin weeks before the actual heart attack. Women commonly report shortness of breath, nausea, fatigue, and body ache.

A more complete list of heart attack symptoms includes:

Diagnosis

The initial tests to diagnose a heart attack are performed in the emergency room. Once a positive diagnosis is made, follow-up tests allow further evaluation of the heart.

Treatment

The following lifestyle and medical interventions are used to treat a heart attack:

Prevention

Individuals with a high risk of having a heart attack may be advised to take aspirin and other blood-thinning medications. Blood pressure and cholesterol lowering drugs may also be prescribed to help prevent plaque formation. At-home measures for maintaining healthy cardiovascular health include regular exercise, a healthy body weight, and a diet low in cholesterol, fat and salt. At-risk individuals should also avoid smoking, limit alcohol, and eliminate high-stress activities.

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Authored by: Tina Shahian, PhD