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A heart attack happens when blood stops flowing to part of your heart

Your heart needs a constant supply of oxygen. It gets the oxygen and food it needs from your blood, through its blood vessel network (called the coronary arteries).

If one of your coronary arteries suddenly becomes blocked by a blood clot, this will cause a heart attack. A blockage in one of these arteries means that there is a part of your heart that can’t get oxygen. If the blood flow isn’t restored quickly, this part of the heart muscle starts to die.

Coronary heart disease is often the cause of a heart attack.

Coronary heart disease or coronary artery disease is when fatty plaque builds up inside walls of the coronary arteries. Over many years this plaque gets thicker and hardens, making the artery narrower, stiffer and less smooth. This is known as atherosclerosis.

What is a Heart Attack

How a clot forms

When we injure ourselves, no matter where in our body, red blood cells will stick together (clot). This is to stop you from bleeding too much. However if injury occurs within a coronary artery, the blood forms a clot, which can lead to a heart attack.

A blood clot will form in a coronary artery when plaque cracks.

If the plaque in a coronary artery tears or cracks, a blood clot will form over it. If the artery is already narrow because of a build-up of plaque, the clot may block your artery completely. It is not known why some plaques suddenly tear or crack while others cause no trouble for many years.

As mentioned above, if the blockage isn’t treated quickly the portion of heart muscle fed by the artery begins to die.

Interactive Warning Signs

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

No two heart attacks are the same. It’s not always like you see in the movies… people clutching their chests and dropping to the floor. Symptoms vary from person to person. For example, if you are diabetic, you may not experience any chest discomfort at all, just other symptoms. Women are also known to experience different symptoms to men.

View our interactive warning signs graphic, and learn more about heart attack action plans

Making sense of your medical notes

Here are some terms you might have heard about or seen in your medical notes. If there are other unfamiliar terms that you have come across, ask your health care provider to explain what they mean.

Click on the terms below to get the definition.

Myocardial infarction

Medical term for a heart attack. It refers to the changes in the heart myocardium (heart muscle) due to a lack of blood and oxygen to that area. The main change is death of the heart muscle.

STEMI

There are many variations but two of the common terms used to describe the heart attack include STEMI AND NSTEMI. STEMI means ST Elevation Myocardial Infarction. This is a heart attack that involves damage to the full thickness of the heart muscle. The ST elevation refers to changes seen on the ECG which makes it different from a non ST Elevation Myocardial Infarction (NSTEMI).

NSTEMI

A non ST Elevation Myocardial Infarction type of heart attack doesn’t involve the full thickness of the heart muscle.

Ischaemia

The term which describes the state when there is impaired blood supply to a given area, e.g the heart muscle.

Coronary occlusion

Blockage of the coronary artery, usually a combination of a build up of a fatty substance (atheroma) and clot which then causes a heart attack.

Acute coronary syndrome

Term used to describe any condition that is brought on by sudden reduction in blood flow to the heart muscle. Examples are heart attack and unstable angina.

Angina

The symptoms, usually chest pain, caused by a reduced blood flow to the heart muscle. There is not permanent damage making it different from a heart attack. It is caused by a narrowing of the artery but it is not completely blocked off. You may see the term angina pectoris which is the same thing.

Stable angina

Symptoms, such as chest pain and shortness of breath, brought on by exertion i.e. exercise, and goes away with rest.

Unstable angina

When angina symptoms come on at rest or with minimal exertion and/or do not resolve on resting. This usually means there is significant narrowing of the coronary artery.

Coronary artery disease

General term describing narrowing of the coronary arteries that deliver oxygen and food to the heart muscle. This is caused by atherosclerosis (build up of a fatty substance on the inner walls of the coronary artery).

Atherosclerosis

The process of fatty build up on the inner walls of the coronary arteries leading to plaque development and narrowing of the artery.

ECG

An electrocardiogram. This is a print out of the heart’s electrical activity taken with leads attached the the body’s chest and arms/legs. Because the electrical system of the heart runs through the heart muscle it is used to obtain information about the health of the heart muscle. This method was previously the only way to diagnose a heart attack but currently blood tests are a more accurate way of measuring damage to the heart muscle.

PCI

Percutaneous Coronary Intervention. This is the name of the procedure where a small catheter is thread up an artery in the arm or groin to the heart to open up the coronary artery, either by balloon, or stent. Similar terms describing the same procedure include PTCA (Percutaneous Transluminal Coronary Angioplasty), Angioplasty, Stenting, or ‘Balloon Procedure’.

CABG

Coronary Artery Bypass Graft. A surgical procedure to attach a grafted vessel to either end of the blocked artery to restore blood flow. Sometimes people describe this as a triple or quadruple bypass which refers to the number of arteries that were treated.

Angiogram

An angiogram or angiography is the procedure where a small catheter is threaded up an artery in the wrist or groin to the heart and dye is injected through the coronary arteries while a special x-ray video is taken. This is to detect any narrowing of the coronary arteries. Also known as cardiac catheterisation.

Continue the journey

What causes a heart attack?
Find out what can increase your risk of heart attack
Read more
Angina
Symptoms of angina and what you can do about it
Read more

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