A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood through a coronary artery is completely blocked. Most of the time, a heart attack causes permanent damage to your heart muscle, which is why it's also called a myocardial infarction or MI. Myocardial means "heart muscle," and infarction means "tissue death".

Symptoms - take immediate action

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense, but many heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Don't wait too long before getting help. Signs of a heart attack:

  • Chest discomfort. 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, pain, squeezing, or fullness.
  • 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, with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.

If you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, call 911. Quick treatment minimizes heart muscle damage and can save your life.

Causes

Most heart attacks are caused by coronary artery disease (CAD), the buildup of a material called plaque in the coronary arteries. This buildup can eventually block the flow of blood in the artery, or cause blood clots that block the artery. A less common cause of heart attack is a spasm in the artery.

Prevention

Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle can help you keep your cholesterol and blood pressure down, keep your arteries clear, and prevent a heart attack.

  • Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat sources of protein such as nuts and fish
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight and keep diabetes under control
  • Quit smoking
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