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A heart attack (also called myocardial infarction) is when part of the heart muscle is damaged or dies because it isn't receiving enough oxygen. Normally, oxygen is carried to the heart by blood flowing through the arteries that feed the heart muscle (called coronary arteries). Most heart attacks are caused by a blockage in these arteries. Usually the blockage is caused by atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fatty deposits (called plaque) inside the artery, and hardening of the artery walls. The buildup is like the gunk that builds up in a drainpipe and slows the flow of water.
Heart attacks are also often caused by a blood clot that forms in a coronary artery, blocking blood flow. Clots are especially likely to form where plaques become cracked or damaged in any way.
The pain of a heart attack can feel like bad heartburn. You may also be having a heart attack if you:
Don't ignore the pain or discomfort. If you think you are having heart problems or a heart attack, get help immediately. The sooner you get treatment, the greater the chance that the doctors can prevent further damage to the heart muscle.
Right away, call for an ambulance to take you to the hospital. Don’t try to drive yourself. While you wait for the ambulance to come, chew one regular tablet of aspirin. Don't take the aspirin if you're allergic to aspirin.
If you can, go to a hospital with advanced care facilities for people with heart attacks. In these medical centers, the latest heart attack technology is available 24 hours a day. How well you survive a heart attack depends on how quickly you get treatment, how much damage there is to the heart, and where that damage is.
Risk factors for a heart attack
Talk to your family doctor about your specific risk factors (see box above) for a heart attack and how to reduce your risk. Your doctor may tell you to do the following:
Talk to your doctor about whether aspirin would help reduce your risk of a heart attack. Aspirin can help keep your blood from forming clots that can eventually block the arteries.