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

Is it safe for women to drink alcohol?

Women should avoid alcohol if they are pregnant or if they have a personal or family history of breast cancer, liver disease, or alcohol abuse. For other women, one drink a day is generally healthy. (Locked) More »

An unusual type of heart attack

Sometimes, people have heart attacks that occur in the absence of a blocked heart artery. These unusual events can result from a number of causes, including a spasm or tear in one of the heart’s arteries or inflammation of the heart. (Locked) More »

A possible culprit in early heart attacks

Lipoprotein(a) is a fatty particle in the blood that invades artery walls, causing atherosclerosis. Also known as Lp(a), the particles are similar to “bad” LDL cholesterol molecules but with an extra protein attached. High blood levels of Lp(a)—which is largely determined by genetics—may explain some unexpected, premature heart attacks. Widespread testing for Lp(a) is not recommended because both the prevalence and the definition of what constitutes a dangerously high level are not yet clear. In addition, there are no FDA-approved treatments proved to lower heart disease risk in people with high Lp(a) levels. More »

Blockage or no blockage, take heart attacks seriously

For years, many doctors thought that heart attacks that weren’t caused by a major blockage were less serious than those that were. New research shows, however, that people who have this type of heart attack—known as a myocardial infarction with nonobstructive coronary arteries (MINOCA)—are at higher risk for future cardiovascular events, and doctors should treat the condition aggressively. (Locked) More »

What's that chest pain?

The big fear about chest pain is that it’s the result of a heart attack. Symptoms can include pressure or squeezing in the chest, lightheadedness, and pain in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back. However, chest pain can have any number of causes, such as heartburn, a panic attack, an overuse injury that inflames the chest wall, or a lung condition. Chest pain that is sudden or severe warrants a call to 911. If it’s been going on for months, it’s probably okay to be evaluated at a doctor’s office instead of the emergency department. (Locked) More »

Can the flu increase my heart attack risk?

A new study found that a person’s risk of heart attack is six times more likely to occur within the week following an influenza diagnosis. However, getting a flu vaccination can reduce the risk of illness and death from heart disease. (Locked) More »

Heart attacks: Clarifying the causes and consequences

The descriptions used to describe different types of heart attacks (such as “massive” or “widow maker”) can be unhelpful or confusing. Even small heart attacks can have serious outcomes—but most heart attacks are not fatal. Another common source of confusion is the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest. In addition, doctors are increasingly realizing that many heart attacks do not result from a blockage in one of the heart’s arteries. Some heart attacks result instead from an imbalance in blood supply and demand. These are most likely to occur in older people with other health problems in addition to heart disease. (Locked) More »