Heart Attack

To do its job—pump blood to every part of the body—the heart needs its own supply of oxygen-rich blood. That pipeline is provided by the coronary arteries. No wider than strands of spaghetti, these arteries deliver blood to hard-working heart muscle cells. A heart attack occurs when blood flow through a coronary artery is suddenly blocked. A blood clot can block flow; so can a sudden spasm of the artery.

Each coronary artery supplies blood to a specific part of the heart. A blockage damages that part of the heart. Depending on the location and amount of heart muscle affected, a blockage can seriously interfere with the heart's ability to pump blood. Since some of the coronary arteries supply areas of the heart that regulate heartbeat, blockages there can cause potentially deadly abnormal heartbeats.

The most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain, usually described as crushing, squeezing, pressing, heavy, stabbing, or burning. The pain or feeling tends to be focused either in the center of the chest or just below the center of the rib cage, but it can spread to the arms, abdomen, neck, lower jaw or neck. Other symptoms can include sudden weakness, sweating, nausea, vomiting, breathlessness, or lightheadedness.

If you think that you, or someone you are with, is having a heart attack, call 911 right away. The sooner you call, the sooner treatment can begin — "time is muscle," as emergency room doctors say. The most effective treatments are artery-opening angioplasty with stent placement or an infusion of a clot-busting drug.

Heart Attack Articles

In Brief

Brief updates on coughing as a side effect of a type of blood pressure medication, waist circumference as an indicator of longevity, and a possible correlation between multiple miscarriages and increased risk of heart attack. (Locked) More »

Understanding the ECG: Reading the waves

The electrocardiogram (ECG) is one of the most common, enduring, and important tests in all of medicine. It's easy to perform, noninvasive, produces results right away, and is useful in diagnosing dozens of heart conditions. The ECG has taken on even more importance lately because a particular ECG pattern, called ST elevation, is a strong indication that a serious heart attack has occurred, and there's more emphasis than ever on treating heart attacks as soon as possible. An ECG isn't necessarily going to be part of a routine physical, but if you need medical attention because you have chest pain, sudden unexplained shortness of breath, or other symptoms that suggest a possible heart attack, you will almost certainly get an ECG. (Locked) More »

Is the heart attack going out of style?

Hospitalization rates for heart attacks are going down, so maybe prevention efforts are paying off. Two studies published in 2010 show that the American heart attack rate is continuing to decline. The first, published in Circulation, was based on Medicare data. The main finding was that hospitalization rates for heart attack dropped by about 23% between 2002 and 2007, which by the authors' calculations might have translated into 100,000 fewer hospitalizations a year for the 45 million Americans enrolled in the Medicare program. The second study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, was based on the hospitalization records of 3 million people ages 30 and older enrolled in the Kaiser Permanente Northern California health plan. Again, the overall finding was the decline in hospitalizations for heart attack at a clip — 24% — that was nearly identical to that found in the Medicare study, and for a time period, 1999 to 2008, that was roughly the same. More »

Chest pain: A heart attack or something else?

Chest pain is an indicator of a possible heart attack, but it may also be a symptom of another condition or problem. Chest pain isn't something to shrug off until tomorrow. It also isn't something to diagnose at home. If you are worried about pain or discomfort in your chest, upper back, left arm, or jaw; or suddenly faint or develop a cold sweat, nausea, or vomiting, call 911 or your local emergency number to summon an emergency medical crew. It will whisk you to the hospital in a vehicle full of equipment that can start the diagnosis and keep you stable if your heart really is in trouble. More »

On the alert for deep-vein blood clots

Deep-vein thrombosis is a clot that forms in a leg or arm vein. Sometimes a piece of the clot can break away and travel through the bloodstream. If the clot lodges in a lung, it can be fatal. More »