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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Overview of heart attack


Phone 111 for an ambulance straight away if you have heaviness, tightness, pressure, discomfort or pain lasting more than 10 minutes in your:

  • chest
  • shoulder
  • jaw
  • arm
  • neck
  • middle of your back.

You might also feel sick, sweaty, short of breath, tired or dizzy.

If you take angina medication, follow your angina plan. If your symptoms do not go away within 10 minutes or are severe or getting worse, phone 111 and ask for an ambulance.

If someone close to you has these symptoms, phone 111 and ask for an ambulance for them.

A heart attack is what happens when the blood flow to part of your heart muscle is blocked. This stops the heart muscle from getting enough oxygen. If the flow is not restarted quickly, the heart muscle can be damaged.

Symptoms of a heart attack

The main symptom of a heart attack is usually chest pain or discomfort, which can feel like squeezing, pressing, tightness or fullness.

The feeling may also be in one or both arms (more commonly the left) or go into your neck, jaw or stomach.

Other symptoms of a heart attack include sweating, feeling faint, feeling sick and being short of breath

Sometimes you can have a heart attack without chest pain. This is more common in women and people with diabetes.

Causes of a heart attack

Coronary artery disease (also called atherosclerosis) is the commonest cause of a heart attack. This is when fatty deposits build up inside an artery (blood vessel). The build-up is called atheroma or plaque. If one of the plaques cracks, a blood clot can form, blocking the artery and causing a heart attack.

A less common cause of heart attack is spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), a condition where one or more of the coronary arteries tears.

Diagnosing a heart attack

If you have the symptoms of a heart attack, it's important to get urgent attention by calling 111.

You'll have a tracing of the electrical activity of your heart known as an ECG (electrocardiogram).

You'll also have blood tests.

Treating a heart attack

The first treatment is to try to open up the blood vessel that is blocked.

This is usually done by a putting a wire into the blood vessel and placing a tube (stent) to keep the blood vessel open. This procedure is known as angioplasty. Other treatments include giving medicine to dissolve the clot (thrombolysis) and rarely, immediate heart bypass surgery.

After your heart attack, you'll need to take medication to keep your heart healthy and prevent further episodes.

You'll also be offered cardiac rehabilitation, which provides education and support.

Reducing your risk of further heart attacks

Several things make it more likely that you'll have another heart attack, including lifestyle factors. By changing your lifestyle, you can lower your risk of a heart attack.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

On the next page: Self-care after a heart attack

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed December 2021.


Page reference: 262360

Review key: HIHAT-110391