During a heart attack, the blood supply that normally nourishes the heart with oxygen cuts off, and the heart muscle begins to die. Heart attacks — also called myocardial infarctions — are very common in the United States. In fact, one happens every 40 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Some people who are having a heart attack have prior warning signs, such as chest pain, while others show no signs.

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.

The leading cause of heart attacks is coronary heart disease. This is where plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. The general build-up of plaque in the arteries is also known as atherosclerosis.

There are two main types of heart attack.

Type I heart attacks are where plaque on the inner wall of the artery ruptures and releases cholesterol and other substances into the bloodstream. This can then form a clot blood clot and block the artery.

In type II heart attacks the heart does not receive as much oxygen-rich blood as it demands, but there is not a complete blockage of an artery.

Other causes of heart attacks include:

  • torn blood vessels
  • blood vessel spasms
  • drug misuse
  • hypoxia, lack of oxygen in the blood
Diagram showing how a blood clot and plaque ruptures can cause a heart attack Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Bailey Mariner

General symptoms for a heart attack may include:

People may experience a mix of heart attack symptoms regardless of sex or gender. However, there are sex-specific differences in the presentation, biology, and outcomes of heart attacks.

A 2019 study found that women are more likely to present with typical heart attack symptoms, such as chest pain and shortness of breath.

However, men are more likely to have a heart attack resulting from a plaque rupture, while women tend to be more at risk of non-obstructive coronary artery diseases.

Higher levels of estrogen can also reduce a person’s risk of a heart attack. As a result, women have a greater risk of a heart attack after menopause than before it.

However, women experiencing heart attack symptoms are more at risk of underdiagnosis and undertreatment because of current gender-specific symptom guidelines.

For example, a 2018 Swiss study found that women tend to wait longer to contact emergency services after experiencing typical heart attack symptoms. Researchers also found that women tend to experience greater delays in receiving treatment in emergency settings.

Anyone experiencing any of the above heart attack symptoms should contact emergency services immediately.

Several factors can put you at risk for a heart attack. Some factors you can’t change, such as age and family history. However, you can make changes related to modifiable factors.

Modifiable risk factors which you can change include:

If you’re over 65 years old, your risk of having a heart attack is greater than people who are under age 65, according to the National Institute on Aging.

Also, if you have a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, or diabetes, you may have a higher risk of having a heart attack.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among most ethnic and racial groups in the United States and the most common cause of heart attacks.

It accounts for 23.7% of all deaths among white non-Hispanic Americans and 23.5% among black non-Hispanic Americans, according to the CDC. Both figures are marginally higher than the overall population level of 23.4%.

Doctors typically diagnose a heart attack after they perform a physical exam and review your medical history. Your doctor will likely conduct an electrocardiogram (ECG) to check 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.

If your doctor diagnoses a heart attack, they’ll use various tests and treatments, depending on the cause.

Your doctor may order a cardiac catheterization. This is a probe that doctors insert into your blood vessels through a flexible tube called a catheter.

It allows your doctor to view areas where plaque may have built up. They can also inject dye into your arteries, order an X-ray to see how the blood flows, and view any blockages.

If you’ve 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. An angioplasty opens the blocked artery by using a balloon or by removing the plaque buildup. It’s important to note that healthcare professionals rarely use angioplasty alone anymore.
  • Stent. A stent is a wire mesh tube surgeons insert into the artery to keep it open after angioplasty.
  • Heart bypass surgery. In bypass surgery, your doctor reroutes the blood around the blockage.
  • Heart valve surgery. In valve repair or replacement surgery, surgeons repair or replace leaky valves to help the heart pump.
  • Pacemaker. A pacemaker is a device implanted beneath the skin. It can help your heart maintain a normal rhythm.
  • Heart transplant. Surgeons may recommend a heart transplant in cases where a heart attack causes permanent tissue death to most of the heart.

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

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’re transferred to a doctor called a cardiologist who specializes in the heart.

Alternative treatments

Alternative treatments and lifestyle changes can improve your heart health and reduce your risk of a heart attack. A nutrient-rich, balanced diet and health-promoting lifestyle are essential in maintaining a healthy heart.

If you are with someone experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, you should call emergency services immediately.

The sooner a person can get emergency medical help, the less damage their heart muscles will sustain.

If you have training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), it may be beneficial to start this. Giving CPR can keep someone alive until emergency services arrive.

Heart attacks can result in various complications. 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 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.

A heart attack can damage your heart muscles and impact their function. This can include changing your heart’s rhythm and reducing its ability to pump blood around your body.

Following a heart attack, it is important to work with your healthcare team to design a recovery plan, which can include:

  • participating in light exercise, according to what your doctor approves
  • eating a nutrient-dense, balanced diet
  • undergoing cardiac rehabilitation
  • quitting smoking if you smoke
  • avoiding strenuous activities, especially shortly after the heart attack

Learn more do’s and dont’s for heart attack recovery here.

While there are many risk factors that you cannot control, there are some basic steps you can take to help keep your heart healthy. Here are few examples:

  • Try to incorporate nutrient-rich foods in your diet as often as possible.
  • Stay active as much as you can, including exercising regularly.
  • If you smoke, consider talking with your doctor about starting a smoking cessation program. Quitting smoking can help reduce your risk because smoking is a major cause of heart disease.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.

All of these steps are important in lowering your risk of developing heart disease and potentially having a heart attack.

If you have diabetes, be sure to take your medications as your doctor prescribed and check your blood glucose levels regularly.

If you have a heart condition, work closely with your doctor and follow your treatment plan, which includes taking your medications.

Talk with your doctor if you have any concerns about your risk of a heart attack.