What Is a Heart Attack? - Definition, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Kiley Griffin
After reading through this lesson you will be able to define what a heart attack is. You willl learn the signs and symptoms as well as underlying cause of a heart attack. You will have an understanding of the treatment involved to treat a heart attack.

Definition of a Heart Attack

Maria had been unusually tired all week. She thought that she must be starting to come down with something because she was also nauseous from time to time. She then began having mild chest pain but did not think much of it. When she met her friend for coffee and told her about the symptoms that she had been having all week, her friend began to panic and told her she was having a heart attack. Maria thought a heart attack was obvious with chest pain--could she really be having a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked causing the heart muscle to die. Arteries travel through the body carrying oxygen-rich blood. This blood travels to the heart where it is filtered and pumped out to the body. If the heart does not get blood, pieces of the heart tissue will begin to die off. Over time this can lead to blockages to cardiac problems resulting in a heart attack. Heart attacks can be fatal if they are not treated immediately. Some individuals may not know that they have cardiac problems as the symptoms can be silent in the body until a heart attack occurs.


Heart attacks are most often caused from coronary artery disease. This condition causes plaque, a waxy substance to build up in the arteries. This is also known as atherosclerosis, or a narrowing and hardening of the arteries. Over time this buildup constricts the blood flow to the heart. Pieces can also break off or clot causing a blockage of the blood flow to the heart. If blood is unable to flow to the heart or is restricted over time the heart muscle dies off and is replaced with scar tissue. The scar tissue can restrict the normal pumping of the heart and not enough blood is able to reach it. Plaque in the arteries can go undetected for years if an individual does not have any symptoms and is not seeing their doctor regularly. The blockage and thickening of the arteries will continue to build over time and become worse and eventually will lead to a heart attack.

A less common cause of a heart attack is from a coronary artery spasm as opposed to a blockage. The spasms cause blood to be blocked from the heart, causing damage. This type of heart attack is often the result of years of smoking, drugs such as cocaine, or emotional stress and pain.

Plaque buildup
Heart Plaque

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

Pressure and tightness of the chest, especially the left side and up to the jaw, is a common sign of a heart attack but sometimes the symptoms are not that obvious. Some individuals experience intense sharp pain while others have a dull ache for several hours or even a few days. Many women feel tired for a few days leading up to a heart attack and will often feel nauseous or have heart burn. Feeling dizzy, light headed, experiencing shortness of breath and sweating are all signs of a heart attack. An impending sense of doom that something bad might be happening is how some describe how they felt before experiencing a heart attack.


If an individual thinks that they are having a heart attack, 911 should be called immediately. They should not allow anyone to drive them to the doctors but should wait for the EMT to arrive and asses them. If an individual becomes unconscious as a result of a heart attack CPR is given to help get the blood flow to the heart. Aspirin is given to patients experiencing a heart attack as it thins out the blood making it easier to reach the heart. Nitroglycerin is also used to open up the arteries and treat any chest pain. Other medications that can be used to treat a heart attack in the hospital include anticlotting drugs, beta blockers, and ACE inhibiters. These are all medications that might be prescribed long-term to prevent further damage to the heart that would lead to another heart attack.

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