Heart attack means that some of the muscle in your heart has died. The medical term for this is myocardial infarction. Most commonly, a heart attack starts with a kind of heavy pressure or pain in the chest, often extending into the neck or left arm. You may have trouble catching your breath, or you may feel weak and break into a cold sweat.
A heart attack usually occurs because one of the blood vessels (called coronary arteries) that bring blood to your heart muscle is blocked. This usually happens when a blood clot forms in a blood vessel that is already partially blocked. The partial blockage, which happens gradually over many years, is usually caused by too much fat layered in the wall of the blood vessel (this is often called hardening of the arteries—the medical term for this is atherosclerosis).
2. If I have chest pain, does that mean I am having a heart attack?
Many other problems can cause chest pain, and it is not always possible to tell from the type of chest pain whether or not you are having a heart attack. Many people have chest pain from straining the muscles in their chest, from problems with the esophagus or stomach (heartburn), and with some lung problems. Chest pain can be a warning sign of hardening of the arteries of the heart (coronary artery disease or CAD).
Chest pain that occurs during exercise, hard work, or at times of stress, lasts for a few minutes and goes away with rest is called angina. If the pain lasts longer than just a few minutes, especially if it occurs when you are resting, seek immediate medical attention.
3. What if I’m not sure I’m having a heart attack?
If you have prolonged chest pain, especially if it does not go away with rest— or if you have been told you have angina, and the drugs you were prescribed do not ease the pain, seek immediate medical attention. Many people who have had a heart attack die without ever having tried to call an ambulance or get to an emergency room.
This article was last reviewed on November 16, 2011. | This article was last modified on January 30, 2012.
The review date indicates when the article was last reviewed from beginning to end to ensure that it reflects the most current science. A review may not require any modifications to the article, so the two dates may not always agree.
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