What Is a Heart Attack and What Are the Symptoms?

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In the United States alone, more than 800,000 heart attacks occur each year.

That number will likely continue to rise: The American College of Cardiology predicts significant increases in heart disease and cardiovascular risk factors across the country by 2060. And a recent poll from Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center found heart attacks can even occur in groups you may not suspect, like young people.

So, exactly what is a heart attack and what symptoms spell trouble?

1. What is a heart attack?

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"A heart attack is a blockage in one of your coronary arteries," Dr. Michael Heffernan, a cardiologist at Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital in Ontario, Canada, said recently in a video. “You can think of it like the plumbing in your house… when one of those pipes somehow gets a block and the blood can’t flow through, the muscle it’s supposed to feed starts to die.”

According to the American Heart Association, a coronary artery can be blocked by a buildup of fat, cholesterol or other substances that partially or completely block blood flow to a part of the heart. Reduced blood flow results in a lack of oxygen, which damages the heart muscle or may even cause death.

There can be other causes for a heart attack. A less common cause could be when a coronary artery contracts or goes into spasm. This causes the artery to narrow, decreasing or completely stopping blood flow to part of the heart muscle. These sorts of spasms can occur in blood vessels that appear normal or in vessels that are partly blocked.

2. Signs of a heart attack

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Heart attack signs and symptoms can range from mild to severe, and they can vary from person to person. An American Heart Association list of heart attack signs includes:

  • Pain or discomfort in the chest, arm or shoulder

  • Lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting

  • Pain in the jaw, neck or back

  • Shortness of breath

3. Signs of heart attack in women vs. men

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women and was responsible for 1 in 5 such deaths in 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Dr. Ming Sum Lee, a clinical cardiologist with Kaiser Permanente, shared that she has seen both younger and older women wait to seek care even though they were experiencing symptoms.

Women may also be less likely to experience the classic symptoms of chest pain and pressure, and instead experience other symptoms, such as:

  • Fatigue or weakness

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Shortness of breath

  • Heartburn or indigestion

  • Unusual fatigue

  • Anxiety or feelings of doom

  • Pain or pressure in the lower chest or upper abdomen

4. What to do if you experience symptoms of a heart attack

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The sooner you receive medical treatment after experiencing symptoms, the better your outcome will be. If you experience any symptoms of a heart attack, do not wait to seek medical attention or to see if your symptoms will go away. It is important to call 911 or your local emergency medical services immediately to improve your chances of survival and reduce damage to the heart. Once you reach a hospital, clinicians can run tests to check if you have experienced a heart attack and select the best treatment for you.

5. More information

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