Your heart muscle needs oxygen to survive. A heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart is cut off or severely reduced. This blockage in the coronary arteries causes the heart muscle to be starved of oxygen, resulting in damage or death to part of the heart muscle. The medical term for this is myocardial infarction.
Most heart attacks are caused by coronary artery disease (CAD) - a type of heart disease where fatty deposits, called plaque, build up in the arteries that lead to the heart. This build up (atherosclerosis) causes arteries to become narrow and blocked, which restricts blood and oxygen flow to the heart muscle. A heart attack may occur when:
- A tear in the plaque occurs, triggering a blood clot that blocks most or all of the oxygen-carrying blood from flowing to a part of the heart muscle.
- A slow buildup of plaque may narrow one of the coronary arteries so that it is almost blocked.
Heart Attack Risk Factors
Many risk factors may lead to the development of plaque buildup and a heart attack.
- Family or personal medical history of heart disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol) and obesity
- Unhealthy diet and lack of exercise
Heart Attack Symptoms
A heart attack is a medical emergency. If you have symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 immediately.
The most common warning sign of a heart attack is chest pain. Not to be confused with angina – a chest pain or discomfort that is the primary symptom of coronary artery disease. The difference between angina and a heart attack is that angina attacks don’t permanently damage the heart muscle.
Other symptoms of heart attack may include:
- Pain, pressure, squeezing or fullness in the chest, arm or below the breastbone
- Pain or discomfort radiating to the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Feeling of indigestion, heartburn or choking
- Shortness of breath, fatigue or extreme weakness
- Sudden excessive sweating, nausea, vomiting or dizziness
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
Women often experience different symptoms than men when suffering a heart attack. Learn more about women’s heart attack risk factors and symptoms.
Heart Attack Diagnosis
At Wake Forest Baptist, we use the latest equipment and techniques to diagnose your condition and prevent further damage to your heart. First, we examine you for signs and symptoms and take your medical and family history into account.
Your physician may recommend any of the following tests to confirm a heart attack:
Heart Attack Treatment
Wake Forest Baptist has a Level I Trauma Center – that means we have the advanced technology and specialized team necessary to treat all life-threatening emergencies, such as heart attack. Our expert triage team immediately assesses every patient and begins treatment, which may include:
- Medications: Blood thinners (anticoagulants) or clot-busting drugs (thrombolytics)
- Angioplasty and stenting
- Coronary artery bypass grafting (open heart surgery)
After a Heart Attack
If you have suffered a heart attack, our team of cardiologists and cardiac nurse specialists will work with you throughout recovery to manage your heart disease. We may refer you to our nationally renowned cardiac rehabilitation program. Our personalized rehabilitation plans help you recover from certain procedures and avoid future complications, such as heart failure and arrhythmia.