APR 12, 2022 8:30 AM PDT

What Happens During a Heart Attack?

WRITTEN BY: Savannah Logan

Heart attacks are one of the most frightening and common causes of death in America. Heart attacks occur when blood flow to the heart is partially or completely blocked. Since the heart is a muscle that needs oxygen to survive, this lack of blood flow stops oxygen from reaching the heart, which causes the heart’s cells to begin to die.

Heart attacks are most commonly caused by coronary artery disease, which occurs when the arteries leading to the heart become damaged or diseased. Inflammation and buildup of plaque in the arteries are the most frequent causes of coronary artery disease. Buildup of plaque, which can include fat, cholesterol, and other substances, gradually narrows the arteries over time, a process called atherosclerosis. Plaque in the arteries leading to the heart can suddenly break off and form a blood clot, which can partially or completely block blood flow to the heart. When this occurs, and the heart’s cells begin to die due to lack of oxygen or nutrients, it is considered a heart attack (a.k.a. myocardial infarction).

Symptoms of a heart attack include pain or discomfort in the chest, especially in the center of the chest or on the left side. You may also feel weak, light-headed, short of breath, or faint, and you may experience pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, shoulders, or arms. Women in particular may also experience nausea, fatigue, and vomiting as symptoms. If you are experiencing symptoms, call 911 immediately to minimize potential damage to your heart.

One of the reasons that heart attacks are frightening is that they can occur without warning, and the gradual process of atherosclerosis has no symptoms. The best way to prevent heart attacks is to live a healthy lifestyle that minimizes the risk of atherosclerosis and other artery damage/inflammation over time. This includes choices like not smoking; avoiding excess dietary fat, cholesterol, and salt; monitoring blood pressure and cholesterol; and getting regular exercise.

Sources: AHA, Heart Foundation, Mayo Clinic, Heart.org, Johns Hopkins, CDC

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
Savannah (she/her) is a scientific writer specializing in cardiology at Labroots. Her background is in medical writing with significant experience in obesity, oncology, and infectious diseases. She has conducted research in microbial biophysics, optics, and education. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Oregon.
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