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Diseases & Conditions A - Z
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What Is a Heart Attack?

Heart attacks (called myocardial infarctions) are very common in the United States. During a heart attack, the blood supply that normally nourishes the heart with oxygen is cut off and the heart muscle begins to die.

Some people who are having a heart attack have symptoms, while others show no signs. Many people report chest pain, upper body pain, sweating, nausea, fatigue, and trouble breathing.

A heart attack is a serious medical emergency. Seek immediate medical attention if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms that could signal a heart attack.


There are a few cardiac conditions that can cause heart attacks. One of the most common causes is plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis) that prevents blood from getting to the heart muscle. Heart attacks can also be caused by blood clots or a torn blood vessel. Less commonly, a heart attack is caused by a blood vessel spasm.

Risk factors

There are factors that can put you at risk for a heart attack. Some factors you can’t change, such as age and family history. Other factors, called modifiable risk factors, are ones you can change. The risk factors that you can’t change include:

  • Age: If you are over 65, your risk for having a heart attack is greater.
  • Sex: Men are more at risk than women.
  • Family history: If you have a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, or diabetes, you are more at risk.
  • Race: People of African descent are at higher risk.

Modifiable risk factors include:

  • smoking
  • high cholesterol
  • obesity
  • lack of exercise
  • diet and alcohol consumption
  • stress

Symptoms and diagnosis

A diagnosis of heart attack is made by a doctor after they perform a physical exam and review your medical history. Your doctor will likely conduct an electrocardiogram (ECG) to monitor your heart’s electrical activity.

They should also take a sample of your blood or perform other tests to see if there’s evidence of heart muscle damage.

Tests and treatments

If your doctor diagnoses a heart attack, they will use a variety of tests and treatments, depending on the cause.

Your doctor may order a cardiac catheterization. This is a probe that’s inserted into your blood vessels through a soft flexible tube called a catheter. It allows your doctor to view areas where plaque may have built up. Your doctor can also inject dye into your arteries through the catheter and take an X-ray to see how the blood flows as well as view any blockages.

If you have had a heart attack, your doctor may recommend a procedure (surgery or nonsurgical). Procedures can relieve pain and help prevent another heart attack from occurring.

Common procedures include:

  • angioplasty: opens the blocked artery by using a balloon or by removing the plaque buildup
  • insertion of stent: this is a wire mesh tube that is used to keep the artery open after angioplasty
  • bypass surgery: reroutes the blood around the blockage
  • heart valve surgery: replaces leaky valves to help the heart pump
  • pacemaker: insertion of a device to help your heart maintain a normal rhythm
  • heart transplant: this is done in severe cases where the heart attack has caused permanent tissue death to most of the heart

Your doctor may also prescribe medications to treat your heart attack, including:

  • aspirin and/or other antiplatelet drugs
  • drugs to break up clots
  • anticoagulants (also known as blood thinners)
  • painkillers
  • nitroglycerin
  • blood pressure medication

Doctors who treat heart attacks

Since heart attacks are often unexpected, an emergency room doctor is usually the first to treat them. After the person is stable, they are transferred to a doctor that specializes in the heart (called a cardiologist).


Several complications can happen. When a heart attack occurs, it can disrupt your heart’s normal rhythm, potentially stopping it altogether. These abnormal rhythms are known as arrhythmias. When your heart stops getting a supply of blood during the heart attack, some of the tissue can die. This can weaken the heart and later cause life-threatening conditions such as heart rupture or heart failure. Heart attacks can also affect your heart valves and cause leaks. The amount of time it takes to receive treatment and the area of damage will determine the long-term effects on your heart.


While there are many risk factors that are out of your control, there are some basic steps you can take to keep your heart healthy. Smoking is a major cause of heart disease. Starting a smoking cessation program can reduce your risk. Maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, and limiting alcohol intake are other important ways to reduce your risk. If you have diabetes, be sure to take your medication and check your blood glucose. If you have a heart condition, work closely with your doctor and take your medication. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about your risk of a heart attack.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Tricia Kinman
Published on: Oct 31, 2014on: Sep 29, 2016

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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