What Exactly Happens During a Heart Attack?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American men and women. Heart attacks, in particular, affect about 720,000 Americans each year. If you have had a heart attack or know someone who has, you may be curious about what leads up to a heart attack and what it means. Learn what’s happening inside the body during a heart attack, and most importantly, what to do next.

How Heart Attacks Happen

Also referred to as a myocardial infarction, a heart attack is the death of a part of the heart muscle due to a loss of blood supply. This usually occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery that supplies the heart muscle. Heart attacks can result from either a full blockage or a partial blockage.

In patients with atherosclerosis, coronary arteries gradually become narrowed from a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances that together are called plaque. An artery becomes blocked when plaque breaks off and creates a barrier or when a blood clot forms around the buildup, leading to a heart attack.

The heart needs oxygen, which is carried through the blood, to survive. When narrowed arteries restrict blood supply, the heart becomes starved of oxygen and nutrients—known as ischemia—which causes a heart attack.

How the Heart Recovers

The amount of damage caused by a heart attack depends on the size of the area the blocked artery was supplying and the length of time before treatment. The heart muscle is very hardy, and the rest of the heart keeps working even after a part has sustained injury. Occasionally, when a coronary artery narrows, other nearby vessels will expand to help compensate the reduced blood flow. This is called collateral circulation and can develop before or after a heart attack to help the muscle recover.

To heal after a heart attack, the heart will develop scar tissue. It will take several weeks for the heart muscle to recover, depending on the severity of the injury and the patient’s healing speed. When you seek treatment, your doctor will recommend medications and lifestyle changes that can prevent you from having future heart attacks.

How to Spot the Symptoms

Learn how you can help if you suspect someone is having a heart attack. Common symptoms include chest pain and upper body discomfort and can also include shortness of breath, lightheadedness, a feeling of tiredness, and nausea. Women, in particular, are more likely to experience some of these unique heart attack symptoms.

If you’re concerned about your heart health, talk to your doctor at CHI St. Luke’s Health for information on heart-healthy diets, lifestyle factors, and medications that can keep you healthy. If you or someone you know exhibits symptoms of a heart attack, you can trust the team at CHI St. Luke’s Health Emergency Services facilities. Locate your nearest emergency room so you know where to go when minutes matter.

AHA | About Heart Attacks
How to Spot and Treat a Heart Attack
5 Common Signs of a Heart Attack
Silent Ischemia and Ischemic Heart Disease

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