Heart attacks occur when the heart receives little or no oxygen-rich blood to nourish the tissues of the heart muscle. This causes heart muscle damage and may cause scarring that can lead to future problems with heart and circulatory health.
Silent heart attacks are more common than people realize. In this study, about 45% of the heart attacks that occurred were silent.
Problems within the coronary arteries that nourish the heart muscle — blockages, atherosclerosis — are the usual sources of this oxygen-deprived state. Most commonly, a blockage from build-up of plaque is the underlying reason. Less commonly, a spasm of the artery causes a temporary stoppage in blood flow.
The severity of a heart attack depends on the amount of heart muscle that is deprived of oxygen and its location. The results can be partial to complete recovery, ongoing disability or death.
The common signs of heart attacks in both men and women are:
- Chest pain or discomfort usually in the center or left side of the chest. The discomfort typically lasts for more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back. It can feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain. It also can feel like heartburn or indigestion. The feeling can be mild or severe.
- Upper body discomfort, pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, shoulders, neck, jaw or upper part of the stomach (above the belly button).
- Shortness of breath. This may be the only symptom, or it may occur before or along with chest pain or discomfort. It can happen at rest or during activity.
Other symptoms include:
- Breaking out in a cold sweat;
- Feeling unusually tired for no reason;
- Nausea and vomiting;
- Light-headedness or sudden dizziness.
People experiencing heart attacks require urgent medical attention to have the best chance for recovery. The presence of underlying health conditions such as diabetes can influence the outcome of heart attacks, as does the time from heart attack to treatment.
Treatment often involves unblocking the clogged arteries, perhaps by the insertion of a stent. Long-term interventions include coronary artery surgery, medications and lifestyle changes to improve overall heart health and prevent recurrences.