Signs of a heart attack include chest discomfort or pressure, shortness of breath, and pain in the head and upper body.

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A heart attack occurs when there is a restriction of blood flow to the heart. The restriction prevents the heart from properly pumping blood around the body, causing pain and difficulty breathing. Heart attacks are typically the result of a blockage in an artery.

The medical name for a heart attack is “myocardial infarction.” It can have severe consequences for the body. The heart muscle will begin to die if timely treatment is not available to restore blood flow to the heart. Timely treatment is critical to the outlook of someone experiencing a heart attack.

Anyone experiencing the symptoms described below requires immediate medical attention. This article will discuss what happens before, during, and after a heart attack. We also provide a personal story from Christopher Smith, an educator who experienced a heart attack.

Is it a heart attack?

Heart attacks occur when there is a lack of blood supply to the heart. Symptoms include:

  • chest pain, pressure, or tightness
  • pain that may spread to arms, neck, jaw, or back
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sweaty or clammy skin
  • heartburn or indigestion
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing or wheezing
  • lightheadedness or dizziness
  • anxiety that can feel similar to a panic attack

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  2. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

If a person stops breathing before emergency services arrive, perform manual chest compressions:

  1. Lock fingers together and place the base of hands in the center of the chest.
  2. Position shoulders over hands and lock elbows.
  3. Press hard and fast, at a rate of 100–120 compressions per minute, to a depth of 2 inches.
  4. Continue these movements until the person starts to breathe or move.
  5. If needed, swap over with someone else without pausing compressions.

Use an automated external defibrillator (AED) available in many public places:

  1. An AED provides a shock that may restart the heart.
  2. Follow the instructions on the defibrillator or listen to the guided instructions.
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Some symptoms of a heart attack may vary from person to person. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that the major heart attack symptoms to watch for include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort: This can involve discomfort in the left side or center of the chest lasting for several minutes or occuring in episodes. It can feel like a tight pressure that makes breathing difficult.
  • Shortness of breath: People may experience difficulty breathing with chest pain or before chest pain starts.
  • Weakness, lightheadedness, or nausea: Some people will feel faint and may experience cold sweats.
  • Pain in the jaw, neck, and torso: People may experience pain in the back, shoulders, or arms.

The American Heart Association states that chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack. However, the organization also indicates that women are more likely than men to experience other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea, and back or jaw pain.

Find out more about what a heart attack feels like.

Christopher’s story: What it feels like during a heart attack

“I experienced chest pain, discomfort, and shortness of breath. These symptoms were severe and constant. I also felt a sense of impending doom and lightheadedness.

“During [the] heart attack, it feels like crushing pain or pressure in the chest, radiating to the arms, jaw, neck, or back. It can also feel like a burning sensation or an aching pain.”

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The symptoms of a heart attack can occur suddenly or come on slowly. In people who experience a slow start, mild pain or discomfort in the chest may gradually increase.

The pain may spread to other body areas, such as the back. Other symptoms, such as shortness of breath and nausea, may occur.

Possible risk factors

Some people are at a higher risk of heart attack than others and should be extra vigilant of the signs and symptoms. Higher-risk groups include:

  • people with high blood pressure
  • people with a family history of heart attacks
  • older people
  • people who smoke
  • those with heart disease
  • those with diabetes
  • people with low physical activity levels
  • people who are overweight
  • people with low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, high levels of low-density (LDL) lipoprotein cholesterol, or high levels of triglycerides
  • anyone experiencing chronic stress
  • people who drink excessive amounts of alcohol

However, even a person with no known risk factors can have a heart attack, as in Christopher’s situation below.

Christopher’s story: Before the heart attack

“Before the heart attack symptoms started, I had no known heart issues and was in good health. I did not experience any symptoms beforehand.

“The doctors did not identify the cause of my heart attack, but they did mention that it can occur in people with no known risk factors, like me.”

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Anyone experiencing a heart attack will require emergency medical care to reduce the risk of damage to the heart muscle. There are many ways of treating heart attacks, which depend on the type of heart attack.

Doctors will provide immediate treatment to restore blood flow to the heart, reduce symptoms, and prevent damage to the heart muscle. Treatment may take place in the ambulance and emergency room and could include:

Cardiologists will perform coronary angiography to take pictures of blood vessels in the heart and perform a percutaneous coronary intervention to open up blood vessels.

Doctors may recommend coronary artery bypass grafting depending on the findings of the coronary angiography.

The type of treatment someone receives will also depend on other factors, such as age and overall health.

The symptoms of a heart attack should lessen following treatments that restore blood flow to the heart. Depending on how much damage there has been to the heart, people may experience heart failure with shortness of breath and activity limitations.

In the long term, a person should attend follow-up appointments to ensure doctors keep track of their condition and recovery.

Christopher’s story: After the heart attack

“Following the heart attack, I felt weak and tired for several days after the procedure.

The procedure was called an angioplasty. During the procedure, a cardiologist used a catheter to thread a small balloon to the narrowed or blocked artery and then inflated the balloon to open up the blocked artery. A stent was also inserted to help keep the artery open. The procedure was done in the hospital.

“My recovery was relatively smooth. I did not experience any recurring symptoms. I felt better after a few days, but it took several weeks to regain my strength.

“I have not experienced any long-term aftereffects or symptoms post-heart attack.”

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Recovery from a heart attack can vary substantially from person to person. Factors that influence how well and quickly someone recovers from a heart attack include age, the timeliness of treatment, and other conditions a person may have.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute states that most people survive heart attacks and continue to live full and active lives. The organization suggests that people may be able to return to normal activities within a few weeks if their symptoms do not persist.

Doctors may suggest taking medications to reduce the risk of another heart attack, such as:

If doctors insert a stent, a person should take the prescribed blood thinners to help prevent clotting, as blood clots can form within stents even after the procedure.

Doctors may also suggest cardiac rehabilitation, a package of services supporting recovery from a heart attack.

Medical professionals supervise cardiac rehabilitation programs to help people improve their health and well-being and change their lifestyles through exercise, education, and counseling to reduce stress.

Lifestyle changes

People may also benefit from making healthy lifestyle changes where necessary, such as:

  • increasing physical activity
  • eating a balanced and varied diet
  • managing stress
  • quitting smoking
  • maintaining a moderate weight

Christopher’s story: Recovery and lifestyle changes

“I have made lifestyle changes to reduce my risk of another heart attack, such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, managing stress, and taking prescribed medication.

“I also closely monitor my health with regular check-ups and tests.”

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Heart attacks are serious medical emergencies that require immediate treatment. The timeliness of treatment greatly affects how well someone recovers. People experiencing a heart attack may have symptoms that include chest pain, shortness of breath, and pain in the neck, head, or torso.

Someone experiencing a heart attack must receive immediate treatment in an emergency room, which could include medications and clinical procedures. A person’s recovery from a heart attack depends on the treatment they receive and other factors, such as age and overall health.