Every year, Americans experience over a million new or recurrent heart attacks. A heart attack (also known as myocardial infarction, or MI) occurs when blood flow to the heart is severely reduced or cut off completely, usually due to a partial or total blockage of the coronary arteries (the large veins that bring oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the heart). The heart muscle is damaged, causing a heart attack.

The amount of damage depends on the size of the area supplied by the blocked artery and the time between injury and treatment. A severe heart attack can lead to major disabilities or death. Those with less severe heart attacks may have a long recovery and return to normal life.

Heart attack versus sudden cardiac arrest

While these terms are often used interchangeably, they describe very different events. A heart attack results from reduced blood flow to the heart and is a circulatory problem. Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) occurs when the heart malfunctions and suddenly stops beating and is an electrical problem.

Symptoms of a heart attack

While chest pain has long been considered the most common symptom of a heart attack, not everyone who suffers a heart attack experiences pain. If you experience any of the following symptoms in combination with chest discomfort, call 911.

  • Chest discomfort, often described as squeezing, pressure heaviness, tightness or pain in the chest
  • Discomfort or pain in the arms, back, jaw, neck or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Anxiety
  • A fear of impending doom or death

In addition, women may experience other, more subtle symptoms, including:

  • Extreme fatigue, which may occur days or weeks in advance
  • Pressure or pain in the lower chest, upper abdomen or upper back

Causes of a heart attack

The more common causes of heart attack are:

  • Coronary thrombosis (or coronary occlusion) – a blood clot or obstruction in a coronary artery
  • Coronary artery disease – plaque buildup inside an artery
  • Stenosis – narrowing in the blood vessels carrying blood to the heart
  • Diagnosing a heart attack

If emergency medical services or a physician suspects you are experiencing a heart attack, they will likely employ one of more of the following tests:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
  • Blood tests
  • Coronary angiography

Treatments for heart attack

A heart attack requires emergency medical care before and after reaching the hospital. The goals of treatment are to restore blood flow to the heart muscle, to prevent further damage, and prevent another heart attack.

Initial care includes:

  • Oxygen therapy – to increase the amount of oxygen to the heart muscle
  • Medications – to hope open blood vessels and increase blood flow

After a patient is stabilized, recovery and management typically include one or more of the following:

  • Medications
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Cardiac rehabilitation
  • Cardiac surgery

Types of heart attack

There are two types of heart attack. Both are considered medical emergencies requiring immediate medical care.

  • STEMI – common name for ST-elevation myocardial infarction, a type of heart attack caused by a complete blockage in a coronary artery
  • NSTEMI myocardial infarction – a non-ST-elevated myocardial infarction, a type of heart attack in which an artery is partially blocked, severely reducing blood flow

Managing risk factors for heart attack

While a variety of issues can increase the risk of heart attack, including age, many risk factors can be avoided or managed by:

  • Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Quitting smoking
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation
  • Eating a healthful diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Managing other health conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obstructive sleep apnea

To find out if you are a risk for heart disease, take our online Heart Risk Assessment.

Heart attack specialists

If you believe you are experiencing a heart attack, call 911.

The experienced heart specialists at Houston Heart are experts at diagnosing and treating heart conditions, including heart attack. We can address your individual risk factors and help you take steps to prevent heart attack.

To learn more, schedule an appointment.