Skip Navigation

  • PRINT  | 

How Is a Heart Attack Treated?

Early treatment for a heart attack can prevent or limit damage to the heart muscle. Acting fast, by calling 9–1–1 at the first symptoms of a heart attack, can save your life. Medical personnel can begin diagnosis and treatment even before you get to the hospital.

Immediate Treatment

Certain treatments usually are started right away if a heart attack is suspected, even before the diagnosis is confirmed. These include:

  • Aspirin to prevent further blood clotting
  • Nitroglycerin to reduce your heart’s workload and improve blood flow through the coronary arteries
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Treatment for chest pain

Once the diagnosis of a heart attack is confirmed or strongly suspected, doctors start treatments promptly to try to restore blood flow through the blood vessels supplying the heart. The two main treatments are clot-busting medicines and percutaneous coronary intervention, also known as coronary angioplasty, a procedure used to open blocked coronary arteries.

Clot-Busting Medicines

Thrombolytic medicines, also called clot busters, are used to dissolve blood clots that are blocking the coronary arteries. To work best, these medicines must be given within several hours of the start of heart attack symptoms. Ideally, the medicine should be given as soon as possible.

Percutaneous Coronary Intervention

Percutaneous coronary intervention is a nonsurgical procedure that opens blocked or narrowed coronary arteries. A thin, flexible tube (catheter) with a balloon or other device on the end is threaded through a blood vessel, usually in the groin (upper thigh), to the narrowed or blocked coronary artery. Once in place, the balloon located at the tip of the catheter is inflated to compress the plaque and related clot against the wall of the artery. This restores blood flow through the artery. During the procedure, the doctor may put a small mesh tube called a stent in the artery. The stent helps to keep the blood vessel open to prevent blockages in the artery in the months or years after the procedure.

Other Treatments for Heart Attack

Other treatments for heart attack include:


Your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following medicines.

  • ACE inhibitors. ACE inhibitors lower blood pressure and reduce strain on your heart. They also help slow down further weakening of the heart muscle.
  • Anticlotting medicines. Anticlotting medicines stop platelets from clumping together and forming unwanted blood clots. Examples of anticlotting medicines include aspirin and clopidogrel.
  • Anticoagulants. Anticoagulants, or blood thinners, prevent blood clots from forming in your arteries. These medicines also keep existing clots from getting larger.
  • Beta blockers. Beta blockers decrease your heart’s workload. These medicines also are used to relieve chest pain and discomfort and to help prevent another heart attack. Beta blockers also are used to treat arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats).
  • Statin medicines. Statins control or lower your blood cholesterol. By lowering your blood cholesterol level, you can decrease your chance of having another heart attack or stroke.

You also may be given medicines to relieve pain and anxiety, and treat arrhythmias. Take all medicines regularly, as your doctor prescribes. Don’t change the amount of your medicine or skip a dose unless your doctor tells you to. 

Medical Procedures

Coronary artery bypass grafting also may be used to treat a heart attack. During coronary artery bypass grafting, a surgeon removes a healthy artery or vein from your body. The artery or vein is then connected, or grafted, to bypass the blocked section of the coronary artery. The grafted artery or vein bypasses (that is, goes around) the blocked portion of the coronary artery. This provides a new route for blood to flow to the heart muscle.

Heart-Healthy Lifestyle Changes

Treatment for a heart attack usually includes making heart-healthy lifestyle changes. Your doctor also may recommend:

Taking these steps can lower your chances of having another heart attack.

Heart-Healthy Eating

Your doctor may recommend a heart-healthy eating plan, which should include:

  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy products, such as skim milk
  • Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, and trout, about twice a week
  • Fruits, such as apples, bananas, oranges, pears, and prunes
  • Legumes, such as kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and lima beans
  • Vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, and carrots
  • Whole grains, such as oatmeal, brown rice, and corn tortillas

When following a heart-healthy diet, you should avoid eating:

  • A lot of red meat
  • Palm and coconut oils
  • Sugary foods and beverages

Two nutrients in your diet make blood cholesterol levels rise:

  • Saturated fat—found mostly in foods that come from animals
  • Trans fat (trans fatty acids)—found in foods made with hydrogenated oils and fats, such as stick margarine; baked goods, such as cookies, cakes, and pies; crackers; frostings; and coffee creamers. Some trans fats also occur naturally in animal fats and meats.

Saturated fat raises your blood cholesterol more than anything else in your diet. When you follow a heart-healthy eating plan, only 5 percent to 6 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat. Food labels list the amounts of saturated fat. To help you stay on track, here are some examples:

If you eat:

Try to eat no more than:

1,200 calories a day                              

 8 grams of saturated fat a day             

1,500 calories a day

10 grams of saturated fat a day

1,800 calories a day

12 grams of saturated fat a day

2,000 calories a day

13 grams of saturated fat a day

2,500 calories a day

17 grams of saturated fat a day

Not all fats are bad. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats actually help lower blood cholesterol levels.

Some sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are:

  • Avocados
  • Corn, sunflower, and soybean oils
  • Nuts and seeds, such as walnuts
  • Olive, canola, peanut, safflower, and sesame oils
  • Peanut butter
  • Salmon and trout
  • Tofu

You should try to limit the amount of sodium that you eat. This means choosing and preparing foods that are lower in salt and sodium. Try to use low-sodium and “no added salt” foods and seasonings at the table or while cooking. Food labels tell you what you need to know about choosing foods that are lower in sodium. Try to eat no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. If you have high blood pressure, you may need to restrict your sodium intake even more.

Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension

Your doctor may recommend the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan if you have high blood pressure. The DASH eating plan focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods that are heart healthy and low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium and salt.

The DASH eating plan is a good heart-healthy eating plan, even for those who don’t have high blood pressure. Read more about DASH.


Try to limit alcohol intake. Too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure and triglyceride levels, a type of fat found in the blood. Alcohol also adds extra calories, which may cause weight gain.

Men should have no more than two drinks containing alcohol a day. Women should have no more than one drink containing alcohol a day. One drink is:

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1½ ounces of liquor

Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight is important for overall health and can lower your risk for coronary heart disease and heart attack. Aim for a Healthy Weight by following a heart-healthy eating plan and keeping physically active.

Knowing your body mass index (BMI) helps you find out if you’re a healthy weight in relation to your height and gives an estimate of your total body fat. To figure out your BMI, check out the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) online BMI calculator or talk to your doctor. A BMI:

  • Below 18.5 is a sign that you are underweight.
  • Between 18.5 and 24.9 is in the normal range.
  • Between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight.
  • Of 30 or more is considered obese.

A general goal to aim for is a BMI of less than 25. Your doctor or health care provider can help you set an appropriate BMI goal.

Measuring waist circumference helps screen for possible health risks. If most of your fat is around your waist rather than at your hips, you’re at a higher risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This risk may be high with a waist size that is greater than 35 inches for women or greater than 40 inches for men. To learn how to measure your waist, visit Assessing Your Weight and Health Risk.

Managing Stress

Research shows that the most commonly reported “trigger” for a heart attack is an emotionally upsetting event—particularly one involving anger. Also, some of the ways people cope with stress—such as drinking, smoking, or overeating—aren’t healthy.

Learning how to manage stress, relax, and cope with problems can improve your emotional and physical health. Consider healthy stress-reducing activities, such as:

  • A stress management program
  • Meditation
  • Physical activity
  • Relaxation therapy
  • Talking things out with friends or family

Physical Activity

Routine physical activity can lower many risk factors for coronary heart disease, including LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, high blood pressure, and excess weight. Physical activity also can lower your risk for diabetes and raise your HDL cholesterol level. HDL is the “good” cholesterol that helps prevent another heart attack.

Everyone should try to participate in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at least 2 hours and 30 minutes per week, or vigorous aerobic exercise for 1 hour and 15 minutes per week. Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, is any exercise in which your heart beats faster and you use more oxygen than usual. The more active you are, the more you will benefit. Participate in aerobic exercise for at least 10 minutes at a time spread throughout the week.

Read more about physical activity at:

Talk with your doctor before you start a new exercise plan. Ask your doctor how much and what kinds of physical activity are safe for you.

Quitting Smoking

If you smoke, quit. Smoking can raise your risk for coronary heart disease and heart attack and worsen other coronary heart disease risk factors. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit smoking. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke.

If you have trouble quitting smoking on your own, consider joining a support group. Many hospitals, workplaces, and community groups offer classes to help people quit smoking.

Read more about quitting smoking at Smoking and Your Heart.

Cardiac Rehabilitation

Your doctor may recommend cardiac rehabilitation (cardiac rehab) to help you recover from a heart attack and to help prevent another heart attack. Nearly everyone who has had a heart attack can benefit from rehab. Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program that may help improve the health and well-being of people who have heart problems.

The cardiac rehab team may include doctors, nurses, exercise specialists, physical and occupational therapists, dietitians or nutritionists, and psychologists or other mental health specialists.

Rehab has two parts:

  • Education, counseling, and training. This part of rehab helps you understand your heart condition and find ways to reduce your risk for future heart problems. The rehab team will help you learn how to cope with the stress of adjusting to a new lifestyle and how to deal with your fears about the future.
  • Exercise training. This part helps you learn how to exercise safely, strengthen your muscles, and improve your stamina. Your exercise plan will be based on your personal abilities, needs, and interests.
Rate This Content:

Featured Video

Updated: November 6, 2015