What is a heart attack?

According to the American Heart Association: "A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to part of the heart muscle itself – the myocardium – is severely reduced or stopped. The medical term for heart attack is myocardial infarction. The reduction or stoppage happens when one or more of the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle is blocked. This is usually caused by the buildup of plaque (deposits of fat-like substances), a process called atherosclerosis. The plaque can eventually burst, tear or rupture, creating a "snag" where a blood clot forms and blocks the artery. This leads to a heart attack. A heart attack is also sometimes called a coronary thrombosis or coronary occlusion."

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense – the “movie heart attack,” where no one doubts what's happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren't sure what's wrong and wait too long before getting help. The American Heart Association lists the following signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:

  • 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. This feeling often comes along with chest discomfort. But it can occur before the chest discomfort.
  • Other signs: These may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness