Your heart muscle needs oxygen to survive. A heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely (View an animation of blood flow). This happens because coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood flow can slowly become narrow from a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances that together are called plaque. This slow process is known as atherosclerosis. When a plaque in a heart artery breaks, a blood clot forms around the plaque. This blood clot can block the blood flow through the heart muscle. When the heart muscle is starved for oxygen and nutrients, it is called ischemia. When damage or death of part of the heart muscle occurs as a result of ischemia, it is called a heart attack or myocardial infarction (MI). About every 43 seconds, someone in the United States has a myocardial infarction (heart attack).

Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense — the “movie heart attack,” where no one doubts what’s happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren’t sure what’s wrong and wait too long before getting help. Here are signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain. Learn about the warning signs of heart attack in women.

Symptoms of heart attack

If you are concerned that you may be experiencing a heart attack, call 9-1-1. Minutes matter! Learn the warning signs to familiarize yourself in case of an emergency.

Symptoms of heart disease which may lead to a heart attack

You may be experiencing cardiovascular problems if you notice that ordinary physical activity causes you to experience the following symptoms:

  • Undue fatigue
  • Palpitations — the sensation that your heart is skipping a beat or beating too rapidly
  • Dyspnea — difficult or labored breathing
  • Chest painchest pain or discomfort from increased activity
  • Angina pectoris also called stable angina or chronic stable angina
  • Unstable angina

Diagnosis: How do I know if a heart attack has occurred?

A healthcare provider can diagnose a heart attack based on several assessment findings. These include:

  • the patient’s complete medical history.
  • a physical examination.
  • an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) to discover any abnormalities caused by damage to the heart. An ECG is a medical device that makes a graphical record of the heart’s electrical activity.
  • blood testing to detect abnormal levels of certain enzymes in the bloodstream.

Blood tests confirm (or refute) suspicions raised in the early stages of evaluation that may occur in an emergency room, intensive care unit or urgent care setting. These tests are sometimes called heart damage markers or cardiac enzymes.

Heart Attack: A Signal of Heart Disease

Although you may have warning signs prior to a heart attack, the heart attack itself may be your first symptom of an underlying problem: cardiovascular disease such as coronary artery disease (CAD) which narrows and hardens your arteries around the heart or atherosclerosis which is often responsible for artery-blocking clots.

To diagnose the condition, heart attack patients may be asked to undergo a number of diagnostic tests and procedures. By learning what these tests are and why they’re being done, you’ll feel more confident. These tests are important and help the doctor determine if a heart attack occurred, how much your heart was damaged and also what degree of CAD you may have.

Diagnostic Measures — “Non-Invasive” and “Invasive”

The tests screen your heart and help the doctor determine what treatment and lifestyle changes will keep your heart healthy and prevent serious future medical events. There are “non-invasive” diagnostic tests and “invasive” diagnostic tests.

Likely Procedures

If you’ve had a heart attack, you may have already had certain procedures to help you survive your heart attack and diagnose your condition.

  • Thrombolysis: Many heart attack patients have undergone thrombolysis, a procedure that involves injecting a clot-dissolving agent to restore blood flow in a coronary artery. This procedure is administered within a few (usually three) hours of a heart attack.
  • Coronary Angioplasty/ Coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG): If thrombolysis treatment isn’t done immediately after a heart attack, many patients will need to undergo coronary angioplasty or coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG) later to improve blood supply to the heart muscle.

For more information on heart attacks, schedule an appointment with Dr. Valentino today.