What Is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction, coronary thrombosis or coronary occlusion, occurs when blood flow is blocked to a part of the heart. When this happens, muscle cells in the affected part of the heart are cut off from needed oxygen and other nutrients. If the blood supply is cut off for more than a few minutes, the heart muscle (myocardium) will begin to die, which may lead to permanent heart damage or even death. If treated immediately, permanent damage may be averted.
Most often, the blockage occurs from a buildup of plaque in one or more coronary arteries, which ruptures, causing a blood clot to form and block the artery (a similar rupture and blockage in an artery leading to the brain may cause a stroke or brain attack).
Heart attacks may be sudden and intense or start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Dial 911 if you experience any or all of the following symptoms:
- Chest Discomfort - Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in your arm, back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Shortness of Breath - Comes prior to or while experiencing chest discomfort.
- "Cold sweats," nausea or lightheadedness
To confirm that what you are experiencing is truly a heart attack, any or all of the following diagnostic tests may be performed:
- Electrocardiogram (also known as an EKG or ECG) - This test involves attaching (with adhesive material) small electrodes to the arm, leg and chest to measure the rate and regularity of a heartbeat and to check for heart muscle damage. The test may be administered by a paramedic or emergency room physician. Learn more about EKG.
- Blood tests - Tests may detect the presence of troponin or creatinine phosphokinase (CPK), which indicates damage to heart muscles.
- Cardiac catheterization - A thin flexible tube (catheter) is passed through an artery in the groin or arm into the coronary arteries, to examine the coronary arteries and monitor blood pressure and flow.
If a heart attack is confirmed, immediate treatment is necessary to prevent further damage to your heart muscle. Treatment options your physician may recommend include the following:
- Medications - including nitroglycerin or beta-blockers to relax blood vessels, anticoagulants to "thin" the blood, or thrombolytic agents to dissolve blood clots.
- Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG), or Myocardial Revascularization - a surgical procedure that involves using a portion of a vein or artery from another area of the body to create a detour around a blocked coronary artery.