Heart attacks occur suddenly and require immediate treatment. If someone near you is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 right away.
What is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart stops or is severely reduced, usually due to a blockage in the coronary arteries. Without the flow of oxygen-rich blood, a heart muscle will start to die.
Heart attacks, also known as myocardial infarctions, affect over 800,000 Americans yearly. Heart attacks are medical emergencies that require immediate treatment to prevent permanent heart damage and death. With immediate care, over 90% of people who suffer a heart attack will survive and can continue to lead productive lives.
Heart attack versus stroke
Heart attacks and strokes both result from a blockage that prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching important organs in the body. Strokes involve a blockage that prevents blood from reaching the brain, while heart attacks prevent blood from reaching the heart. Both can be life-threatening and require immediate treatment for a greater chance of recovery.
Signs & Symptoms of a Heart Attack
Major signs and symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Chest pain or discomfort (including tightness or pressure in the chest)
- Shortness of breath
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the shoulders, back, neck, or jaw.
- Feelings of weakness or fatigue
- Feeling lightheaded or faint
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
- Feelings of heartburn or indigestion
Signs and symptoms of a heart attack can differ between men and women. The most common symptom for both men and women is chest pain. However, women's heart attack symptoms and treatments can differ—for example, women are more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, nausea, and pain in the back, neck, or jaw.
Heart attacks occur suddenly, but some people experience warning signs for hours, days, or weeks. Persistent chest pain or pressure is a typical warning sign, so consult a doctor to assess your risk of heart attack if you experience these symptoms. If you are experiencing any urgent symptoms, call 911 immediately.
What Causes a Heart Attack?
Heart attacks are caused when the supply of oxygenated blood to the heart is disrupted. The heart's muscle cells become damaged and die when they do not receive enough oxygen. This means that the heart can no longer function properly.
Most heart attacks are caused by a complete or partial blockage of a coronary artery, which brings blood to the heart muscle. However, about 5% of heart attacks occur without any blockage.
Causes of heart attacks include:
- Acute complete blockage - This refers to a complete blockage of a coronary artery. This can be caused by a buildup of plaque (fats, minerals, and cholesterol) in the blood vessel walls that abruptly tears/fissures, triggering clot deposit and blocking blood flow to the heart.
- Partial blockage - Occurs when blood flow to the heart is severely reduced due to a partial but severe blockage within an artery
- Coronary artery spasm - Does not involve blockage. Rather, this occurs when the muscle that lines the arteries squeezes and prevents blood flow to the heart.
- Obstructions from other parts of the body - A blood clot or air bubble can travel from a different part of the body to the coronary arteries. Getting trapped in the artery can deprive the heart of blood and oxygen, leading to a heart attack.
- Certain medical conditions - Infections that cause damage to the heart muscle, such as COVID-19 and certain viral infections, can cause heart attacks. Also, rare medical conditions could lead to a heart attack, including vascular diseases that cause the blood vessels to narrow over time.
- Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) - An uncommon condition that causes the wall of a coronary artery to spontaneously tear, cutting off the heart's blood supply
- Trauma - Causes tears of the coronary arteries
Risk Factors for Heart Attacks
Certain behavioral, environmental, and genetic factors increase a person's risk of a heart attack. Risk factors for heart attacks include:
- Age - The risk of a heart attack increases with age. For men, the risk of a heart attack increases significantly at age 45. For women, the risk increases significantly after age 55 or after menopause.
- Sex - Heart attacks are more common in men than in women
- Family history – A family history of heart disease or heart attacks, especially when diagnosed before age 55 for men and before age 65 for women
- History of preeclampsia - Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication involving high blood pressure that increases the risk of heart attack
- Lifestyle choices - Lack of physical exercise, smoking and tobacco use, excessive consumption of alcohol, and drug abuse can increase the risk of a heart attack. Diets high in fat, sodium, sugar, and processed foods also increase the risk.
- Certain health conditions and diseases - Including diabetes, obesity, eating disorders, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood)
- Stress - Severe anger or emotional stress can increase the risk of a heart attack
Complications that result from a heart attack are often due to heart muscle damage following the incident. These can include:
- Arrhythmias - An arrhythmia is an irregular or abnormal heartbeat. Arrhythmias occur when electrical signals in the heart do not transmit information properly, causing the heart to beat too quickly or slowly or have an abnormal rhythm.
- Heart failure - This is a long-term condition that occurs when the heart is incapable of pumping blood as well as it should, depriving the body of vital nutrients and oxygen.
- Cardiogenic shock - This is a condition where your heart suddenly or progressively cannot pump enough blood to meet the body's needs. Cardiogenic shock is life-threatening and must be treated immediately to increase the chances of survival.
- Heart rupture - This rare but severe complication occurs when the heart’s muscles and walls tear apart. This can be the result of the damage caused by a heart attack.
Heart Attack Prevention
While there’s no guaranteed way to prevent a heart attack, you can take certain preventative measures to reduce your risk.
Preventative measures include:
- Maintaining a healthy lifestyle - Avoid smoking, tobacco use, drug use, and excessive consumption of alcohol. Engage in regular physical activity, and maintain a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins and low in fats.
- Managing existing health conditions - Regularly check in with your doctor if you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, or another condition that increases the risk of a heart attack
- Taking medications as directed - Your doctor may recommend certain medications to improve your heart health and lower the risk of heart attack
Even if you do not have an existing medical condition, visiting your doctor for regular check-ups can allow them to detect heart-related issues and promptly begin treatment to lower the risk of a heart attack.
Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Heart Disease Treatment
The heart specialists at NewYork-Presbyterian understand all aspects of heart health, from initial symptoms to long-term treatment needs. We’re here to guide you every step of the way, from diagnosis to treatment. Schedule an appointment with one of our experts today.
If you feel that you or someone else is experiencing a heart attack, please call 911.