Heart Attack

Man clutching chest having heart attack.jpg

Remember that everyone is different and heart attack symptoms can vary from one person to the next. Time lost is muscle lost, so it's important to call 911 if you suspect you might be having a heart attack.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to a section of heart muscle becomes blocked. If the flow of blood isn't restored quickly, the section of heart muscle becomes damaged from lack of oxygen and begins to die. Heart attacks occur most often as a result of coronary artery disease, when plaque builds up on the inside walls of the coronary arteries. Eventually, an area of plaque can rupture, causing a blood clot to form. If the clot becomes large enough, it can mostly or completely block the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the part of the heart muscle fed by the artery.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

  • Many heart attacks start as mild pain or chest discomfort, not necessarily "fall to the floor" scenes we often see on TV.
  • Chest discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, pain, indigestion or heartburn. It can be mild or severe. 
  • Shortness of breath may occur with or before chest discomfort.
  • Discomfort will sometimes be felt in one or both arms, the jaw or stomach.
  • Other symptoms may include lightheadedness, fainting or breaking out in a cold sweat.
  • Women are more likely than men to have shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting or fatigue.

Symptoms of a heart attack in women

Women are unique and so are their hearts. Many are unaware that heart attacks are the leading cause of death for women as well as men. Although heart attack risk is the same for both genders, women's bodies often respond differently than men's. Women don't always have pain in their arm or chest when having a heart attack.

Symptoms women may experience during a heart attack include:

  • Feeling out of breath
  • Pain that runs along the neck, jaw or upper back
  • Nausea, vomiting or indigestion
  • Unexplained sweating or dizziness
  • Sudden, overwhelming fatigue

Women are also less likely than men to believe they're having a heart attack and more likely to delay seeking emergency treatment.

What does it feel like to have a heart attack?

Because the warning signs vary so much from person to person, no two individuals' experiences are the same. However, by staying on top of any first warning signs, an individual can avoid long-term damage to the heart or death.

What should someone do if they suspect a heart attack?

If you or someone around you is having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. Early treatment can prevent or limit damage to your heart muscle and save lives. In the event of cardiac arrest, which is when a person’s heart stops beating, begin CPR immediately. CPR and the use of an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) can double or triple a person’s chance of survival.

How is a heart attack treated?

By acting fast at the first symptoms of a heart attack, you can save your life and reduce damage to your heart. Certain treatments are usually started right away if a heart attack is suspected including oxygen, aspirin to prevent further blood clotting and nitroglycerin to reduce the workload on the heart and improve blood blow through the coronary arteries.

What are the risk factors for a heart attack?

The following risk factors have been linked to a higher incidence of heart attack and should be addressed and eliminated, where possible. If you, or someone you care about, struggles with any of these risks, talk to your doctor about ways to minimize the controllable factors before they impact your health.

  • Increasing age: About 82 percent of people who die of heart disease are 65 or older.
  • Gender: Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women and typically have attacks earlier in life.
  • Heredity: Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop it themselves.
  • Smoking: Smokers' risk of developing heart disease is two to four times higher than that of nonsmokers.
  • High blood cholesterol: As blood cholesterol rises, so does the risk of heart disease.
  • High blood pressure: High blood pressure increases the heart's workload.
  • Physical inactivity: An inactive lifestyle is a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Obesity and overweight: People who have excess body fat - especially around the waist - are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke.
  • Diabetes: Diabetes increases your risk of heart disease.
  • Stress: Some scientists have noted a relationship between heart disease risk and stress.

Love your heart

Heart attacks can happen fast. When seconds count, put your heart in the experienced hands of the heart care teams at UnityPoint Health. The faster you're treated, the higher your chances are for recovery.

If you have been diagnosed with a heart attack, it is extremely important to make lifestyle changes that reduce the risk factors which have contributed to your heart disease. Changing your lifestyle to reduce your risk factors is one of the most important steps you can take to improve your overall cardiovascular condition.

What Does a Heart Attack Feel Like?