What Is A Heart Attack Exactly?

No one has time for a heart attack. Life is just too busy. We may pretend the signs of a heart attack may be something else because we think it will never happen. But it does.

What is a heart attack exactly? According to the American Heart Association, a heart attack is when blood flow to the heart is blocked. The heart needs oxygen to survive, and blood carries oxygen.

Blood flow is blocked when coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood become narrow from a buildup of fat, cholesterol or other substances that together are called plaque. When plaque in a heart artery breaks, a blood clot forms around it. 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, or MI. About every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a myocardial infarction, the American Heart Association said.

If you ever experience any of the signs of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately, said Dr. Raj Kaushik, cardiovascular/thoracic surgeon with The Heart Center of Penn Highlands Healthcare. Most heart attacks start slowly with milder symptoms. Pay attention to them.

What are the signs of a heart attack? How do you know if you are having one?

The common symptoms are as follows:

  • 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.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

Symptoms can also vary between men and women. 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.

But no matter what gender you are, learn all the signs. If you think even maybe that you are having a heart attack, don’t delay getting help, Kaushik said.

Minutes matter and fast action can save lives. Call 9-1-1. Emergency medical services, or EMS, staff can begin treatment when they arrive - up to an hour sooner than if someone gets to the hospital by car. EMS staff are also trained to revive someone whose heart has stopped. Patients with chest pain who arrive by ambulance save time at the hospital, too. Hospital staff are usually waiting and prepared for patients brought by ambulance because of the en route communications.

If you want to avoid a heart attack, take precautions now to change your lifestyle.

What are some heart health tips? According to Kaushik:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Watch what you eat. If it grows on trees, it is good for you. Eat more vegetables and fruits.
  • Cut back on saturated fats. One-percent milk is better
  • Get up and move! Couches are for sitting, not for growing roots. Go for a walk. Do something!
  • If you think you are overweight, you probably are. Check your body mass index, or BMI.
  • Get check-ups. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but check-in with him or her regularly,” he said.
  • Drink less alcohol.
  • Eliminate stress. “Letting people and things stress you out only affects you!”

And if you have any concerns about your heart health, see your primary care physician. If you don’t have one, go to www.phhealthcare.org/find-a-doctor.