What Happens When You Have a Heart Attack?

man experiencing heart attack clenches chestTo understand a heart attack, we must learn more about how the heart and the cardiovascular system work. The heart is just like any other muscle or tissue in the body in that it needs oxygenated blood to function properly. A ‘heart attack’ myocardial infarction (MI) occurs when part of the heart is deprived of oxygen for a period of time. When oxygen does not reach the heart, the deprived area begins to die. The resultant weakness is responsible for many of the symptoms that we associate with a heart attack.

A heart attack can have a variety of causes and many different implications for the person affected. There are specific names for some types of heart attacks, depending on the cause and location of the problem. You may hear terms like ‘STEMI’ or ‘NSTEMI’.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

There are many different signs of a heart attack. Unfortunately, many of these symptoms are not unique to this condition. Signs of a heart attack may include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort, often on the left side
  • Shortness of breath, and
  • Discomfort in the upper body – one or both arms, back, shoulders, neck, and jaw
  • Indigestion, heartburn, or acid reflux
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

These are not the only symptoms of heart attack, but they are the most common. Further, men and women experience different symptoms related to a heart attack. Many of these symptoms can also signify other problems with the heart and other structures throughout the body. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you shouldn’t risk it. Be sure to dial 9-1-1 immediately.

Unfortunately, far too many patients do not recognize the sign of a heart attack early on and wait crucial minutes or even hours before they seek appropriate emergency care.

What Happens in Your Body During and After a Heart Attack?

A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked.² This most often occurs due to the partial blockage of the artery as a result of a condition known as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the build-up of what we call plaque on the walls of the arteries. This usually occurs due to poor diet, lifestyle, and exercise habits that allow excess fatty deposits to flow through the blood vessels. Eventually, these plaques occlude the artery significantly enough that the heart simply does not get enough oxygen. Typically, prior to this, patients will feel chest pain, also known as angina. However, some patients experience few or no clear symptoms prior to their heart attack.

How to Prevent a Heart Attack

You can prevent a heart attack by reducing your risk in areas where you have some control. This may include making changes to your diet and physical activity levels. You may need to try to follow a heart-healthy diet that includes a balance of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. You should also stop smoking, as this is a leading risk factor for heart disease. Remember to talk to a medical professional before making significant changes to your diet or exercise routine.

Preventing a heart attack is not limited to just improving your lifestyle. An earlier understanding and diagnosis of cardiovascular disease allows your cardiologist to monitor the heart and create a screening plan that can significantly reduce the risk of a heart attack. Whether through medication management, lifestyle change, or a curative procedure, your cardiologist needs to be aware of your heart health and risk factors.

If you have genetic or environmental risk factors for heart disease, or if your lifestyle lends itself to a less-than-healthy cardiovascular state, consider making an appointment with a cardiologist. At this visit, your doctor can evaluate your risk for a heart attack and speak with you about some changes you can make in your daily life to promote heart health.

Related Topics:

The Link Between Cannabis and Heart Attacks


  •  Fang, J. (2019, February 7). Awareness of Heart Attack Symptoms and Response. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/68/wr/mm6805a2.htm
  • Heart Attack. (n.d.). Myocardial Infarction, MedlinePlus. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://medlineplus.gov/heartattack.html
  • Yu E, Malik VS, Hu FB. Cardiovascular Disease Prevention by Diet Modification: JACC Health Promotion Series. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2018 Aug 21;72(8):914-926. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2018.02.085. PMID: 30115231; PMCID: PMC6100800.
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6100800/