What is a Heart Attack?

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Answers By Heart

A heart attack most commonly results from
atherosclerosis (fatty buildups) in the arteries that carry
blood to the heart muscle. Plaque buildup narrows the
inside of the arteries, making it harder for blood to flow.

If a plaque in a heart artery ruptures (breaks open), a
blood clot forms. The clot further blocks the blood flow.
When it completely stops blood flow to part of the
heart muscle, a heart attack occurs. Then the section of
the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die.
Damage increases the longer an artery stays blocked. In
some cases, it may even die. Once that muscle dies, the
result is permanent heart damage.

The amount of damage to the heart muscle depends on
the size of the area supplied by the blocked artery and
the time between injury and treatment. The blocked
artery should be opened as soon as possible to reduce
heart damage.

What are the warning signs?

Atherosclerosis develops over time, it often has no symptoms
until there’s enough damage to lessen the blood flow to your
heart muscle.

You should know the warning signs of heart attack so you
can get help right away, either for yourself or someone close
to you.

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense. But most start
slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Here are some of the
signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:

• Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the
center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or
goes away and comes back.

• Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, your back, neck,
jaw or stomach.

• Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

• Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea
or lightheadedness.

What happens after a heart attack?

Depending on the extent of your heart attack and the
treatment you receive, you may only be in the hospital a
few days. When you return home, your heart muscle will
continue to heal. But your recovery is just beginning.
Follow your health care provider’s recommendations about
your weight, diet, physical activity, medicine and other
lifestyle changes. That way, you’ll have a better chance of
improving your health and avoiding future attacks.
If you are eligible, your health care provider will
recommend a cardiac rehabilitation program in your area.
Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program designed
to improve your cardiovascular health. It has three equally
important parts:

• Exercise counseling and training
• Education for heart-healthy living
• Counseling to reduce stress

How can I reduce my risk for a heart attack?

Even if you have heart disease, there’s a lot
you can do to improve your heart health.
Work with your health care provider to set
goals to reduce your risk.

• Don’t smoke, and avoid second-hand
• Treat high blood pressure, if you have it.
• Eat a heart-healthy diet that’s low in
saturated and trans fats, sodium (salt)
and added sugars.
• Get at least 150 minutes of moderateintensity physical activity a week.
• Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
• Control your blood sugar if you have
• See your doctor for regular check-ups.
• Take your medicines exactly as

Call 1-800-AHA-USA1
(1-800-242-8721), or visit heart.org
to learn more about heart disease and

Sign up to get Heart Insight, a free
monthly e-newsletter for heart patients
and their families, at heartinsight.org.

Connect with others sharing similar
journeys with heart disease and stroke
by joining our Support Network at

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