Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute

Heart Attacks: Symptoms, Risk Factors, and Treatment

What Is a Heart Attack?

Heart attacks, also called myocardial infarctions, are the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States. A heart attack occurs when blood flow in the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart, is cut off or severely reduced. In most cases, heart attacks are caused by coronary artery disease (CAD), where cholesterol, fat, or some other substance creates a buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries. The buildup of plaque is called atherosclerosis.

What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack?

Heart attack symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people may have very few symptoms or may not experience any symptoms - this is called a silent heart attack.

The most common signs of a heart attack for both men and women include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort - Most heart attacks cause pain or discomfort in the center or left side of the chest. This feeling can be mild or severe. The discomfort typically lasts longer than a few minutes and can go away and return. It may feel like pressure, fullness, pain, or squeezing in the chest.
  • Upper body discomfort - Heart attacks may cause pain or discomfort in one or both arms, shoulders, back, neck, jaw, or upper stomach.
  • Shortness of breath - Shortness of breath may be the only symptom of a heart attack or may occur before or with chest pain. It can occur while resting or doing physical activity.

Other symptoms of heart attack may include:

  • Faintness or dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Heavy pounding of the heart
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Anxiety
  • Bluish lips, hands, or feet

Are You at Risk for Heart Disease?

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Are You at Risk for Heart Disease?


What Are the Heart Attack Symptoms in Women?

As with men, the most common heart attack symptom in women is chest pain or discomfort. However, women are more likely to have silent heart attacks or experience less common and less intense symptoms that can go ignored.

Some of the other common heart attack symptoms in women include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain or pressure in the lower chest or upper abdomen
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Jaw, neck, or upper back pain
  • Sweating

The risk of heart attack increases in women after menopause, due to decreasing estrogen levels.

Call 9-1-1 if You Notice Symptoms of a Heart Attack

If you or someone you are with experiences any of these heart attack symptoms, immediately call 911 for emergency medical services (EMS) - even if you are unsure whether or not it is a heart attack. Some people wait too long because they don’t recognize all the signs and symptoms. Receiving treatment as quickly as possible when you are suffering a heart attack is essential, even if your symptoms do not seem serious. Getting help right away can save a life.

It is recommended that you wait for EMS workers to arrive rather than having someone drive you to the hospital, as EMS is trained to provide proper treatment and rapid transport to the hospital.

What Causes a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked by a clot or plaque buildup in the arteries. When blood flow is blocked, the muscle begins to die. This requires immediate medical attention to relieve the blockage and restore oxygen flow to the heart.

Less commonly, a severe spasm of the coronary artery can also stop blood flow to the heart muscle.

What Are the Risk Factors for Heart Attack?

Some risk factors that make you more likely to develop heart disease are not preventable, such as:

  • Age
  • Gender (males are at greater risk)
  • Family history
  • Diabetes

There are some major risk factors that you can reduce or prevent altogether, like:

  • Tobacco use – Tobacco increases your risk in multiple ways, including damaging your blood vessels, raising your blood pressure, and reducing the amount of oxygen in your blood.
  • Alcohol consumption – Drinking too much can raise both blood pressure levels and triglycerides, a fatty substance linked to increased heart attack risk. The recommended daily consumption of alcohol is 1 drink for women and 2 drinks for men.
  • Weight – Adults who are obese or overweight are more likely to develop heart disease, even with no other risk factors.
  • Sedentary lifestyle – A lack of physical activity is a major risk factor for heart disease, and can also increase your risk of obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes, which are themselves risk factors.
  • Stress – Your body’s response to a stressful lifestyle may also be a contributing factor to heart attack risk.

How to Lower Your Risk of a Heart Attack?

Positive lifestyle changes can go a long way in reducing your risk for heart attack. Quitting smoking and moderating your alcohol intake are essential to lowering your risk, as is getting regular physical activity. Good nutrition is another important step; choose nutrient-rich foods and make sure your diet has plenty of fruits and vegetables.

How Is a Heart Attack Treated?

The specific treatment recommended by your provider depends on the type of heart attack suffered. You may have suffered a complete or partial blockage, and appropriate treatments differ for a STEMI (ST-Segment Elevation Myocardial Infarction) versus a non-STEMI attack.

Treatment of a heart attack may include the use of medications like:

  • Aspirin – The 911 operator may instruct you take aspirin immediately to reduce blood clotting.
  • Thrombolytics – Often referred to as “clotbusters,” these medications help to dissolve the blood clot that is blocking blood flow.
  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors – ACE inhibitors expand your blood vessels and allow blood to flow more easily.
  • Beta blockers – These decrease the heart’s workload, help relieve chest pain, and treat irregular heartbeats.
  • Statins – Statins help to lower blood cholesterol levels, reducing the chances of a future heart attack or stroke.

Common heart attack treatment procedures include:

  • Angioplasty – Medical providers guide a long, thin tube up to the blocked artery in your heart and use a tiny balloon to open up the blockage.
  • Bypass surgery – Creates new passages for blood flow by sewing veins or arteries in place beyond a blocked artery. Bypass surgery can be performed as an emergency treatment for a heart attack or days later as part of your recovery.

How to Recover After a Heart Attack?

Much like the treatment, recovery from a heart attack depends on the severity of your condition and your overall medical situation. After the event, you will likely be advised to stay in the hospital for 3 to 5 days, or until your condition stabilizes.

It’s important to work with a trusted medical provider and follow their instructions for a successful recovery. Most hospitals offer a cardiac rehabilitation program designed to help you resume your life safely.

During your recovery process, it is important to:

  • Take all medication as prescribed by your provider.
  • Follow a heart-healthy lifestyle, including diet, exercise, and low stress.
  • Quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke.