What Happens During a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked, most often by a build-up of fat, cholesterol and other substances in the coronary arteries. The interrupted blood flow can damage or destroy part of the heart muscle. Restoring blood flow quickly is vital to surviving a heart attack and preventing permanent damage.

While some heart attacks are sudden and intense – and unmistakable – most start with mild pain or discomfort that can easily be mistaken for fairly benign conditions. People often dismiss a heart attack as indigestion or even a muscle pull and delay vital treatment.

Listen to your body. Early detection can prevent a heart attack or the heart muscle damage that goes along with it. The most common symptoms are:

  • Chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest
  • Pain, pressure or strange sensations in the back, neck, jaw, upper belly, shoulder or arm
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Unusual fatigue, weakness or lightheadedness
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Indigestion, nausea or vomiting
  • Unexplained anxiety

Minutes Matter

Don’t let more than five minutes pass if you suspect a heart attack. An ambulance is almost always the fastest and safest way to get to the hospital, and emergency medical services (EMS) can begin tests and life-saving treatment, such as clot-busting drugs, as soon as they arrive. But to be most effective, these treatments must be given within one hour of the first symptoms.

How Is a Heart Attack Treated?

If you go to the hospital in an ambulance, treatment will begin en route to restore blood flow and limit damage to the heart. You may be given:

  • Aspirin and other medicines to prevent blood clots
  • Medicines that break up blood clots
  • Medicines to decrease the heart's workload and ease pain

At the hospital, you may receive:

  • Angioplasty: an expandable balloon is inserted into the clogged artery and inflated to open the artery. Often a stent is placed to keep the artery open.
  • Coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG): also known as heart bypass surgery. During this procedure, the surgeon uses a healthy vein from another part of the body to bypass the clogged artery to supply blood to the heart.
  • Cardiac rehabilitation (rehab): treatment, education and support to help you to manage symptoms and make lifestyle choices for a healthier heart.

Preventing a Heart Attack

The biggest risk factor for a heart attack is coronary artery disease. By living a heart-healthy lifestyle, you can help slow or prevent coronary artery disease, lowering your risk of a heart attack.

Surviving a Heart Attack

Pat Bone’s Story

His status as a former professional athlete and amateur baseball hall of fame member could not protect Pat Bone from a “widowmaker” heart attack. His faith and his infamous competitive nature pulled him through. Now he is on a crusade to spread the message of heart health.

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