Coronary Heart Disease
Most heart attacks occur as a result of coronary heart disease (CHD).
CHD is a condition in which a waxy substance called plaque builds up inside of the coronary arteries. These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to your heart.
When plaque builds up in the arteries, the condition is called atherosclerosis. The buildup of plaque occurs over many years.
Eventually, an area of plaque can rupture inside of an artery. This causes a blood clot to form on the plaque's surface. If the clot becomes large enough, it can mostly or completely block blood flow through a coronary artery.
If the blockage isn't treated quickly, the portion of heart muscle fed by the artery begins to die. Healthy heart tissue is replaced with scar tissue. This heart damage may not be obvious, or it may cause severe or long-lasting problems.
Coronary Artery Spasm
A less common cause of heart attack is a severe spasm (tightening) of a coronary artery. The spasm cuts off blood flow through the artery. Spasms can occur in coronary arteries that aren't affected by atherosclerosis.
What causes a coronary artery to spasm isn't always clear. A spasm may be related to:
Some people can have few symptoms and are surprised to learn they've had a heart attack. If you've already had a heart attack, your symptoms may not be the same for another one.
Most Common Heart Attack Symptoms
The most common warning symptoms of a heart attack for both men and women are:
Other Less Common Heart Attack Symptoms
Pay attention to these other possible symptoms of a heart attack:
In women, symptoms may be slightly different. Most women will experience pain or discomfort in their chest, but some may not. Other symptoms that a woman might experience include:
Not all heart attacks begin with the sudden, crushing chest pain that often is shown on TV or in the movies. In one study, for example, one-third of the patients who had heart attacks had no chest pain. These patients were more likely to be older, female, or diabetic.
It is important for you to remember these heart attack facts:
The symptoms of angina can be similar to the symptoms of a heart attack. Angina is chest pain that occurs in people who have coronary heart disease, usually when they're active. Angina pain usually lasts for only a few minutes and goes away with rest. Chest pain or discomfort that doesn't go away or changes from its usual pattern (for example, occurs more often or while you're resting) can be a sign of a heart attack. All chest pain should be checked by a doctor.
If you or someone you know exhibits any of the above warning signs, act immediately. Call 9-1-1, or your local emergency number.
Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Physicians are members of the medical staff at one of Baylor Health Care System's subsidiary, community or affiliated medical centers and are neither employees nor agents of those medical centers, The Heart Hospital Baylor Plano or Baylor Health Care System.