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Maine Heart Center - Heart Health - How the Heart Works - Heart Attack
Heart Health - Heart Attack

The heart's pumping action requires oxygen, which is carried in the blood by specialized red blood cells. The coronary arteries supply the heart with the blood and oxygen it needs. If these vessels are blocked through the buildup of plaque and cholesterol, the flow of blood and oxygen is impeded. Sometimes a blood clot may form on top of the plaque, further blocking the blood flow. A blood clot can even completely block the flow of blood through the coronary artery, depriving the heart of the oxygen supply for survival. This deprivation can produce chest pains and other related symptoms. It only takes 30 minutes of oxygen deprivation for the heart muscle to begin to die. The longer this continues, the more heart muscle dies. This is called a heart attack.

What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack?

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense, but most start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often, people who are affected aren't sure what is wrong and wait too long before getting help. Here are signs that can indicate a heart attack is occurring:

  • 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. May occur with or without chest discomfort. Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
Symptoms vary from person to person. The acute signs of a heart attack are often different in women than men, leading to more unrecognized heart attacks in women. One study found that 43% of women reported no chest discomfort during a heart attack and, those who did, reported that it was mainly in the back and high chest. Other acute symptoms in women included:
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness or unusual fatigue
  • Cold sweat and dizziness.
There may be different symptoms for a heart attack. It is often described as an intense ache in the left side of the chest, where the pain radiates outward into the neck, jaw, back or arms. Some people talk about a tightness or pressure in the chest-like a cat sitting on their chest. Other symptoms include indigestion, nausea, shortness of breath, intense sweating or clamminess. When any of these symptoms persist longer than 30 minutes, one should assume that a heart attack is taking place.

For reasons that are unclear, about one-quarter of all heart attacks occur without producing any identifiable symptoms. These so-called "silent" heart attacks may only be discovered incidentally by examination of an electrocardiogram (ECG) or by another heart test.

What To Do If You Think You Are Having a Heart Attack

There are two reasons to seek medical attention immediately:
  • First, it can be treated with medications. The sooner that this begins, the less damage will be done to the heart muscle.
  • Second, irregular heart rhythms can develop during a heart attack. Some of the more serious ones can result in brain damage and death. Hence, if possible, call 911 and have paramedics provide initial treatment. This is much better than attempting to drive to the hospital by oneself.

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