Heart Attack Signs & Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Prevention of Heart Attack
Heart Attack Signs & Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Prevention of Heart Attack
A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood to the heart is severely reduced or blocked. The blockage is usually due to a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances in the heart (coronary) arteries. The fatty, cholesterol-containing deposits are called plaques. The process of plaque buildup is called atherosclerosis.
Sometimes, a plaque can rupture and form a clot that blocks blood flow. A lack of blood flow can damage or destroy part of the heart muscle. A heart attack is also called a myocardial infarction. Prompt treatment is needed for a heart attack to prevent death. Call 911 or emergency medical help if you think you might be having a heart attack.
- Chest pain that may feel like pressure, tightness, pain, squeezing or aching.
- Pain or discomfort that spreads to the shoulder, arm, back, neck, jaw, teeth or sometimes the upper belly.
- Cold sweat.
- Heartburn or indigestion.
- Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness.
- Shortness of breath.
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Women may have atypical symptoms such as brief or sharp pain felt in the neck, arm or back. Sometimes, the first symptom sign of a heart attack is sudden cardiac arrest.
Some heart attacks strike suddenly. But many people have warning signs and symptoms hours, days or weeks in advance. Chest pain or pressure (angina) that keeps happening and doesn’t go away with rest may be an early warning sign. Angina is caused by a temporary decrease in blood flow to the heart.
What are the risk factors for heart attack?
Several health conditions, your lifestyle, and your age and family history can increase your risk for heart disease and heart attack. These are called risk factors. About half of all Americans have at least one of the three key risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and smoking.
Some risk factors cannot be controlled, such as your age or family history. But you can take steps to lower your risk by changing the factors you can control.
Learn more about risk factors for heart disease and heart attack.
What can I do to recover after a heart attack?
If you’ve had a heart attack, your heart may be damaged. This could affect your heart’s rhythm and its ability to pump blood to the rest of the body. You may also be at risk for another heart attack or conditions such as stroke, kidney disorders, and peripheral arterial disease (PAD).
You can lower your chances of having future health problems following a heart attack with these steps:
- Physical activity—Talk with your health care team about the things you do each day in your life and work. Your doctor may want you to limit work, travel, or sexual activity for some time after a heart attack.
- Lifestyle changes—Eating a healthier diet, increasing physical activity, quitting smoking, and managing stress—in addition to taking prescribed medicines—can help improve your heart health and quality of life. Ask your health care team about attending a program called cardiac rehabilitation to help you make these lifestyle changes.
- Cardiac rehabilitation—Cardiac rehabilitation is an important program for anyone recovering from a heart attack, heart failure, or other heart problem that required surgery or medical care. Cardiac rehab is a supervised program that includes
- Physical activity
- Education about healthy living, including healthy eating, taking medicine as prescribed, and ways to help you quit smoking
- Counseling to find ways to relieve stress and improve mental health
A team of people may help you through cardiac rehab, including your health care team, exercise and nutrition specialists, physical therapists, and counselors or mental health professionals.
Coronary artery disease causes most heart attacks. In coronary artery disease, one or more of the heart (coronary) arteries are blocked. This is usually due to cholesterol-containing deposits called plaques. Plaques can narrow the arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart.
If a plaque breaks open, it can cause a blood clot in the heart.
A heart attack may be caused by a complete or partial blockage of a heart (coronary) artery. One way to classify heart attacks is whether an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) shows some specific changes (ST elevation) that require emergency invasive treatment. Your health care provider may use ECG results to describe these types of heart attacks.
- An acute complete blockage of a medium or large heart artery usually means you’ve had an ST elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI).
- A partial blockage often means you’ve had a non-ST elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI). However, some people with NSTEMI have a total blockage.
Not all heart attacks are caused by blocked arteries. Other causes include:
- Coronary artery spasm. This is a severe squeezing of a blood vessel that’s not blocked. The artery generally has cholesterol plaques or there is early hardening of the vessel due to smoking or other risk factors. Other names for coronary artery spasms are Prinzmetal’s angina, vasospastic angina or variant angina.
- Certain infections. COVID-19 and other viral infections may cause damage to the heart muscle.
- Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD). This life-threatening condition is caused by a tear inside a heart artery.
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Heart attack risk factors include:
- Age. Men age 45 and older and women age 55 and older are more likely to have a heart attack than are younger men and women.
- Tobacco use. This includes smoking and long-term exposure to secondhand smoke. If you smoke, quit.
- High blood pressure. Over time, high blood pressure can damage arteries that lead to the heart. High blood pressure that occurs with other conditions, such as obesity, high cholesterol or diabetes, increases the risk even more.
- High cholesterol or triglycerides. A high level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) is most likely to narrow arteries. A high level of certain blood fats called triglycerides also increases heart attack risk. Your heart attack risk may drop if levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol — the “good” cholesterol — are in the standard range.
- Obesity. Obesity is linked with high blood pressure, diabetes, high levels of triglycerides and bad cholesterol, and low levels of good cholesterol.
- Diabetes. Blood sugar rises when the body doesn’t make a hormone called insulin or can’t use it correctly. High blood sugar increases the risk of a heart attack.
- Metabolic syndrome. This is a combination of at least three of the following things: enlarged waist (central obesity), high blood pressure, low good cholesterol, high triglycerides and high blood sugar. Having metabolic syndrome makes you twice as likely to develop heart disease than if you don’t have it.
- Family history of heart attacks. If a brother, sister, parent or grandparent had an early heart attack (by age 55 for males and by age 65 for females), you might be at increased risk.
- Not enough exercise. A lack of physical activity (sedentary lifestyle) is linked to a higher risk of heart attacks. Regular exercise improves heart health.
- Unhealthy diet. A diet high in sugars, animal fats, processed foods, trans fats and salt increases the risk of heart attacks. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, fiber and healthy oils.
- Stress. Emotional stress, such as extreme anger, may increase the risk of a heart attack.
- Illegal drug use. Cocaine and amphetamines are stimulants. They can trigger a coronary artery spasm that can cause a heart attack.
- A history of preeclampsia. This condition causes high blood pressure during pregnancy. It increases the lifetime risk of heart disease.
- An autoimmune condition. Having a condition such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus can increase the risk of a heart attack.
It’s never too late to take steps to prevent a heart attack — even if you’ve already had one. Here are ways to prevent a heart attack.
- Follow a healthy lifestyle. Don’t smoke. Maintain a healthy weight with a heart-healthy diet. Get regular exercise and manage stress.
- Manage other health conditions. Certain conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, can increase the risk of heart attacks. Ask your health care provider how often you need checkups.
- Take medications as directed. Your health care provider may prescribe drugs to protect and improve your heart health.
It’s also a good idea to learn CPR properly so you can help someone who’s having a heart attack. Consider taking an accredited first-aid training course, including CPR and how to use an automated external defibrillator (AED).