How coronary artery disease leads to a heart attack

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack happens when a sudden blockage in one of your coronary arteries cuts off the blood supply to your heart muscle. If a tear or rupture develops in a plaque that has built up in your coronary artery as a result of atherosclerosis, a blood clot can form on the torn plaque, just as a blood clot forms when you cut your skin. This clot can completely block the artery and cut off the blood supply to a portion of your heart muscle. Without blood, your heart muscle doesn't get oxygen, and without oxygen, the muscle can die.

The medical term for a heart attack is a myocardial infarction. "Myocardial" refers to your heart muscle, and "infarction" refers to the permanent damage to your heart muscle that results from a heart attack.

Many people live with coronary artery disease (CAD) and never have a heart attack. It's important to understand, however, that a heart attack can occur suddenly even in someone who has never had symptoms of CAD before. If you have plaque in your coronary arteries from atherosclerosis, you can have a heart attack. In fact, some people first learn that they have CAD when they have a heart attack. These people likely had CAD for many years but did not know it because it did not cause any symptoms.

What does a heart attack feel like?

The symptoms of a heart attack are similar to the symptoms of a type of chest pain called angina. Most people who have a heart attack experience some form of chest pain or discomfort that is often described as tightness, heaviness, squeezing, or crushing in the chest. Heart attacks also cause other related symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, nausea, and sweating. If you have had angina before, you will probably find that the symptoms of a heart attack are more intense and last longer than the symptoms of angina. A heart attack can happen during exertion or even while you are resting.

These symptoms can also be from unstable angina, a severe form of angina that means you have a greater risk of having a heart attack. When you go to the hospital, your doctor will have to determine whether you are having a heart attack or an episode of unstable angina.

What should I do if I think I am having a heart attack?

Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you have any symptoms that suggest unstable angina or a heart attack. If you are having a heart attack, every minute counts. The longer you wait, the greater the chance that your heart will be permanently damaged or that you might die from the heart attack.

Will I die from a heart attack?

Your chances of dying from a heart attack depend on the size of your heart attack, the part of your heart that is affected, and your overall health. The other important factor is how quickly you are able to get medical attention after your heart attack begins. The longer your heart muscle is deprived of oxygen, the more the heart attack will damage your heart.

Your chances of dying from a heart attack also increase if your heart attack causes serious problems with your heart or with other parts of your body, such as heart failure or a stroke. The more problems that your heart attack causes, the worse your chances of survival are.

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