What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs if the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a section of heart muscle suddenly becomes blocked. If blood flow isn't restored quickly, the section of heart muscle begins to die. Heart attacks are a leading killer of both men and women in the United States. The good news is that excellent treatments are available for heart attacks. These treatments can save lives and prevent disabilities.

Every 39 seconds, someone dies from heart and blood vessel diseases, America's number one killer. Since most of those deaths are from coronary heart disease (over 400,000 each year) it is important to learn all you can about heart attack.

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense, but most start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Here are some of the signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, your back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

If you or someone you're with has chest discomfort, especially with one or more of the other signs, don't wait more than five minutes before calling for help. Call 9-1-1 or the emergency medical services in your area. Timing is crucial.

Most heart attacks are caused by a blood clot that blocks one of the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that bring blood and oxygen to the heart muscle. When blood cannot reach part of your heart, that area starves for oxygen. If the blockage continues long enough, cells in the affected area die.

What causes a heart attack?

Coronary artery disease is the most common underlying cause of a heart attack. Coronary artery disease is the hardening and narrowing of the coronary arteries caused by the buildup of plaque inside the walls of the arteries. Over time, the buildup of plaque can:

  • narrow the arteries so that less blood flows to the heart muscle
  • completely block the arteries and flow of blood
  • cause blood clots to form and block the arteries

Heart attack also can occur due to problems with the very small, microscopic blood vessels of the heart. This condition is called microvascular disease. It's believed to be more common in women than in men.

A less common cause of heart attacks is a severe spasm or tightening of the coronary artery that cuts off blood flow to the heart. These spasms can occur in persons with or without coronary artery disease. Artery spasm can sometimes be caused by emotional stress, exposure to extreme cold, cigarette smoking, or by taking certain drugs like cocaine.

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