The Science Behind Heart Attacks

February 26, 2021
The Science Behind Heart Attacks

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Who is more likely to get a heart attack, and how can you reduce the odds that you’ll have a heart attack?

Continue reading further to understand the science behind heart attacks.


Your heart muscle needs oxygen to survive. A heart attack – also known as Myocardial Infarction (MI) – occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely. This happens when coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood flow become narrow due to a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances known as plaque. Atherosclerosis is the general medical term for plaque buildup that clogs arteries.

Additionally, when plaque within a heart artery breaks, a blood clot forms around the plaque. This blood clot can block the blood flow through the artery to the heart muscle. Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the medical term for atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries. In fact, for many decades doctors thought that heart attack and CAD affected mostly men. Doctors are now realizing that heart disease is just as common in women. As a result, more clinical studies are being done to learn about how heat attacks differ in men and women.


If you have a family history of heart disease or a history of cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, or other risk factors can increase your chances of having a heart attack. Common symptoms of a heart attack in men include:

  • Standard chest pain/pressure sensation that may come and go or remain constant and intense
  • Upper body pain or discomfort, including arms, left shoulder, back, neck, or jaw
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Stomach discomfort that feels like indigestion
  • Shortness of breath even when you’re resting
  • Dizziness
  • Cold sweat


Women are less likely to survive their first heart attack than men. This may be because the symptoms differ between the sexes. Women are more likely to have a “silent” heart attack or display unusual symptoms. Research also suggests that women experience symptoms for several weeks before a heart attack. These symptoms may include:

  • Unusual fatigue lasting for several days or sudden severe fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Anxiety
  • Lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Indigestion or gas-like pain
  • Upper back, shoulder, or throat pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Pressure or pain in the center of your chest, which may spread to your arms


One very common type of chest pain is called angina. It’s a recurring discomfort that usually lasts only a few minutes. Angina occurs when your heart muscle doesn’t get the blood supply and oxygen that it needs. The difference between angina and a heart attack is that angina attacks don’t permanently damage the heart muscle.


Ideally, your doctor should screen you during regular physical exams for risk factors that can lead to a heart attack. If you’re in an emergency setting, you’ll be asked about your symptoms and have your blood pressure, pulse, and temperature checked. You’ll be connected to a heart monitor and have tests to see if you’re having a heart attack.

Tests to diagnose a heart attack include:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG): This first test done to diagnose a heart attack records electrical signals as they travel through your heart.
  • Blood tests: Certain heart proteins slowly leak into your blood after heart damage from a heart attack. Emergency room doctors check for these proteins or enzymes.
  • Chest X-ray: An X-ray image of your chest allows your doctor to check the size of your heart and its blood vessels and to look for fluid in your lungs.
  • Echocardiogram: Sound waves (ultrasound) create images of the moving heart. Your doctor can use this to see how your heart’s chambers and valves are pumping blood through your heart and if an area of the heart has been damaged.
  • Coronary catheterization (angiogram): A liquid dye is injected into the arteries of your heart through a long, thin tube (catheter). The dye makes the arteries visible on X-ray, revealing areas of blockage.
  • Cardiac CT or MRI: These tests create images of your heart and chest. Cardiac CT scans use X-rays while Cardiac MRIs use a magnetic field and radio waves.


Medications used to treat heart attack may include:

  • Aspirin: Aspirin reduces blood clotting, thus helping maintain blood flow through a narrowed artery.
  • Thrombolytics: This drug helps dissolve a blood clot that’s blocking blood flow to your heart.
  • Antiplatelet agents: Emergency room doctors may give you other drugs known as platelet inhibitors to help prevent new clots and keep existing clots from getting larger.
  • Pain relievers: You might be given a pain reliever, such as morphine.
  • Nitroglycerin: This medication, used to treat chest pain (angina), can help improve blood flow to the heart by dilating the blood vessels.
  • Beta-blockers: These medications help relax your heart muscle, slow your heartbeat, and decrease blood pressure, making your heart’s job easier.

In addition to medications, common surgical procedures required to treat heart attacks may include:


To keep heart disease from getting worse, follow your doctor’s advice. Make sure to make the necessary lifestyle changes, such as:


It’s estimated that one American dies every 37 seconds from cardiovascular disease. Most heart damage occurs within the first two hours of a heart attack. Therefore, it’s very important to act quickly if you or a loved one is experiencing any heart attack symptoms. Take immediate action by calling your primary health provider or dialing 911 if symptoms are severe. As our continued efforts to promote heart health awareness this month, we would like to encourage you to take advantage of the resources that are available by visiting your primary care provider and implementing healthy lifestyle choices to ensure a healthier heart.

What were your thoughts about this article? Do you or a loved one have or had any form of heart disease? What health advice would you give to others? Please comment below!

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