The blockage is often caused by a buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries—blood vessels that supply blood to the heart. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. Eventually, plaque can rupture and cause a blood clot to form. The blood clot obstructs the flow of blood to the heart, resulting in a heart attack.
If the blood and oxygen supply is cut off severely or for a long period of time, the affected section of the heart muscle suffers damage and dies. The result is dysfunction of the heart muscle in the area affected by the lack of oxygen.
A heart attack can happen to anyone, but some people are more at risk than others. Those with inherited (genetic) risk factors such as a family history of heart disease; type 1 diabetes; high blood pressure; low levels of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol; high levels of LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol; and high triglycerides have a greater risk. Risk also increases with age. In general, men are at risk at an earlier age than women, but after the onset of menopause, women are equally at risk.
While some risk factors are out of your control, there are steps you can take to manage controllable risk factors. This includes quitting smoking, limiting alcohol intake, losing excess weight, getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and controlling stress. Working with your doctor to keep your cholesterol and triglyceride levels in control, as well as managing conditions such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, can also help.
The most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain or discomfort that lasts for more than a few minutes. Although chest pain is the key warning sign of a heart attack, it can sometimes be confused with indigestion, pneumonia, or other disorders. Check out the symptoms callout box for a list of possible heart attack symptoms. If you or someone you know exhibits any of these warning signs, call 911 immediately.
The goal of treatment for a heart attack is to relieve pain, restore immediate blood flow to preserve the heart muscle function, and prevent death.
An electrocardiogram (ECG) will be done immediately in the emergency department or in the ambulance if 911 was called. If the ECG detects a heart attack, immediate intervention is necessary. Treatment options include:
Fibrinolytic therapy: An IV medication is given to break up the clot that is blocking the coronary artery.
Coronary angioplasty: A balloon is used to create a bigger opening in the blood vessel to increase blood flow.
Coronary artery bypass: Most commonly referred to as simply “bypass surgery,” this procedure is often performed in people who have angina (chest pain) and coronary artery disease (a condition in which plaque has built up in the arteries). During the surgery, a bypass is created by grafting a piece of a vein above and below the blocked area of a coronary artery, enabling blood to flow around the obstruction.