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Heart Attack

Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States suffers a heart attack. A heart attack is caused by a blood clot that blocks a coronary artery. The coronary arteries supply blood and oxygen to the heart. If the blood flow is blocked, the heart is deprived of oxygen and heart muscle dies.

The medical term for a heart attack is myocardial infarction.

A heart attack occurs when:

  • Plaque buildup breaks off. This triggers blood platelets and other substances to form a blood clot at the site that blocks most or all of the oxygen-carrying blood from flowing to a part of the heart muscle. This is the most common cause of heart attack.
  • A slow buildup of plaque may narrow one of the coronary arteries so that it is almost blocked.

Heart attacks can occur when resting or asleep, after a sudden increase in physical activity, when active outside in cold weather, or after severe stress or illness.

Signs & Symptoms

Chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack and may be felt in only one part of the body or may move from the chest to the arms, shoulders, neck, teeth, jaw, stomach, or back.

The pain can be severe or mild, and often feels like a tight band around the chest, bad indigestion, something sitting on the chest, or squeezing or heavy pressure.

Other symptoms of a heart attack can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Cough
  • Fainting
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating

Some people have little or no chest pain. Or, they may have unusual symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue, and weakness. A “silent heart attack” is a heart attack without symptoms.

Women often experience atypical or less obvious heart attack symptoms, including:

  • Chest pain (tightness, pressure, squeezing, or aching)
  • Extreme or unusual fatigue
  • Weakness, often accompanied by anxiety, dizziness, fainting, or lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Pain in the neck, jaw, arms, or upper back
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Indigestion, nausea, or vomiting


A Deborah Specialty Physician will perform an electrocardiogram (ECG) to look for heart damage. Most of the time, certain changes on the ECG indicate the patient is having a heart attack.

A blood test can also show evidence of heart tissue damage.