A heart attack, or cardiac arrest, occurs when oxygen-rich blood stops flowing into a portion of the heart. The heart becomes starved of oxygen, and the tissue of the heart begins to die off if the blood flow isn't restored.
A heart attack typically occurs as a result of worsening coronary artery disease, which restricts or blocks the flow of blood through a coronary artery. It's a medical emergency and a leading killer of both men and women in the United States.
Causes of Heart Attack
Over time, coronary artery disease causes plaque to build up in the coronary arteries and obstruct the flow of blood into the heart. In some cases, the plaque can break loose and cause a clot to form, which can block the flow of blood completely. A spasm in a coronary artery can also cause blood to stop flowing to the heart. Once the blood flow stops, a heart attack is a likely result.
It's important to be on the lookout for the warning signs of a heart attack because it requires emergency medical attention. These symptoms include uncomfortable pain, pressure or tightness in the chest that lasts for several minutes or goes away and comes back. The pain can also spread to the back, stomach, arms and neck. Nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, a cold sweat and shortness of breath are other warning signs of a heart attack.
A heart attack is a medical emergency. At the hospital, doctors will react quickly with oxygen therapy, aspirin and nitroglycerin to thin the blood and reduce the workload on the heart. Typically, medications called “clot-busters,” as well as some surgical methods, are used to open up the arteries and restore the flow of blood to the heart. Other medications and treatments may also be used.
Afterward, someone who's had a heart attack can expect a strict regimen of cardiac rehabilitation both at the hospital and at home. This will often include instruction and counseling on diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes.
SOURCES: U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; American Heart Association
Factors that increase risk of heart attack, stroke and death.