Heart attack

Atheroma build up in a coronary artery causing a restricted blood flow

Atheroma build up in a coronary artery causing a restricted blood flow

Having a heart attack can be a frightening experience for you and for your family and close friends. It is likely that you will have lots of questions about what has happened to you as well as what you can and cannot do. It is important to remember that everyone is different and what your individual recovery will be like will be unique to you and your circumstances.

You may have some difficulty concentrating and retaining information in the early stages after a heart attack. This is quite common so try not to worry if you can’t take everything in.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack (also known as myocardial infarction or MI) happens when the blood supply to your heart becomes completely blocked, either by the formation of a blood clot or by a loose piece of atheroma. This can result in damage to the part of your heart muscle which that particular coronary artery was supplying.

Sometimes, when chest pain occurs suddenly it is unclear if it is due to unstable angina or a heart attack. Until tests confirm the diagnosis doctors sometimes call this Acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS).

What does a heart attack feel like?

The most common sign of a heart attack is chest pain. This type of chest pain often starts in the middle of your chest and may travel to your neck, jaw, ears, arms and wrists. Sometimes, it travels between your shoulder blades, back, or to your tummy area.

Chest pain can be a sign that you are having a heart attack

Chest pain can be a sign that you are having a heart attack

During a heart attack chest pain can be very severe or it can start off as a dull pain or ache. It’s sometimes described as a ‘heaviness, burning, tightness, constriction or squeezing sensation’ or as a ‘heavy weight or pressure’. For some people chest pain can feel similar to indigestion or heartburn.

Other symptoms which may indicate that you are having a heart attack include:

  • Feeling / being sick
  • Becoming sweaty and clammy
  • Looking very grey and pale
  • Feeling generally unwell and scared
  • Restlessness / anxiety
  • Breathlessness
  • Coughing
  • Heart beating very quickly
  • Feeling dizzy

Some people do not have any chest pain during a heart attack: this is called a ‘silent heart attack’. This is more common in people with long-standing diabetes.

  • Do not be afraid to call 999 if you have suspect that you might be having a heart attack.

What causes a heart attack?

The build-up of atheroma in the coronary arteries leads to coronary heart disease. This narrows the artery and causes a restricted blood flow. This process, known as atherosclerosis, can lead to angina and / or heart attacks. There are a range of risk factors which have been proven to cause, or contribute to, coronary heart disease. These include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol level
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Not getting enough exercise
  • Being overweight
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Unhealthy diet

The more risks you have, the more your risk of developing coronary heart disease; the risks don’t just add, they multiply. The good news is though, that it is never too late to make healthy lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of another heart attack / worsening heart disease.

Facts about heart attacks

  • Most people survive heart attacks and make a good recovery.
  • Your heart is one of the toughest muscles in your body – it is already healing itself.
  • Your heart hasn’t worn out – a heart attack is usually caused by a blockage in one small section of an artery.
  • Stress, shocks or surprises do not cause a heart attack.
  • It is normal to feel tired, weak and emotional after a heart attack: this will pass.
  • Many of the causes of heart attacks are under your control – it is never too late to reduce your risk of another heart attack.
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