A heart attack happens if the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a section of heart muscle suddenly becomes blocked. Most heart attacks occur as a result of coronary heart disease (CHD).
CHD is a condition in which a waxy substance called plaque builds up inside of the coronary arteries. These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to your heart.
When plaque builds up in the arteries, the condition is called atherosclerosis. The buildup of plaque occurs over many years.
Eventually, an area of plaque can rupture (break open) inside of an artery. This causes a blood clot to form on the plaque's surface. If the clot becomes large enough, it can mostly or completely block blood flow through a coronary artery.
If the blockage isn't treated quickly, the portion of heart muscle fed by the artery begins to die. Healthy heart tissue is replaced with scar tissue. This heart damage may not be obvious, or it may cause severe or long-lasting problems.
A less common cause of heart attack is a severe spasm (tightening) of a coronary artery. The spasm cuts off blood flow through the artery. Spasms can occur in coronary arteries that aren't affected by atherosclerosis.
What causes a coronary artery to spasm isn't always clear. A spasm may be related to:
The animation below shows how plaque buildup or a coronary artery spasm can lead to a heart attack. Click the "start" button to play the animation. Written and spoken explanations are provided with each frame. Use the buttons in the lower right corner to pause, restart, or replay the animation, or use the scroll bar below the buttons to move through the frames.
The NHLBI "Grand Opportunity" Exome Sequencing Project
Heart Attack Warning Symptoms
Interested in learning more about heart disease in women? View a Storify archive of a September 28, 2012, Twitter chat on women’s heart health. The discussion includes experts from The Heart Truth®, Million Hearts™, healthfinder.gov, and the American College of Cardiology’s CardioSmart™
Clinical trials are research studies that explore whether a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective for humans. To find clinical trials that are currently underway for Heart Attack, visit www.clinicaltrials.gov.
March 26, 2013
EDTA chelation therapy modestly reduces cardiovascular events
Chelation therapy, an unproven alternative medicine in the treatment for heart disease, modestly reduced cardiovascular events for adults aged 50 and older who had suffered a prior heart attack, according to new NIH-supported research.
When a heart attack happens, any delays in treatment can be deadly.
Knowing the warning symptoms of a heart attack and how to take action can save your life or someone else’s.
The NHLBI has created a new series of informative, easy-to-read heart attack materials to help the public better understand the facts about heart attacks and how to act fast to save a life.
Click the links to download or order the NHLBI's new heart attack materials:
“Don’t Take a Chance With a Heart Attack: Know the Facts and Act Fast” (also available in Spanish)
The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.