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What is a heart attack?

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when the heart does not get enough blood supply. 

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common cause of a heart attack. CAD occurs when the coronary arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart become narrowed or blocked from plaque buildup, making it harder for blood to pass through them.

Heart attacks can also result from a coronary artery spasm, which occurs when there is a severe tightening or spasm of a coronary artery that cuts off blood flow through the artery.

The most common symptom of a heart attack in men and women is chest pain (angina) or discomfort that may feel like tightness, squeezing, aching or pressure. Other signs and symptoms of a heart attack vary from person to person and by gender but typically include one or more of the following: 

  • Cold sweats
  • Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
  • Fatigue
  • Heartburn 
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath

Call 9-1-1 immediately if you are experiencing signs of a heart attack. Do not self-diagnose or hesitate to seek immediate medical treatment if you are not feeling well or experiencing signs of a heart attack. It can save your life and reduce long-term damage to your heart. 

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.

Learn more about heart attack risk factors.


Are there different types of heart attacks?

There are three types of heart attacks.

ST segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI)

  • The most common type of heart attack. It may also be referred to as the "widowmaker heart attack." 
  • Only a STEMI will show elevated ST segments, a pattern that appears on an electrocardiogram.  
  • The coronary artery becomes completely blocked.
  • A large portion of the muscle stops receiving blood.
  • Considered a major heart attack that can cause significant damage to the heart.

Non-ST segment elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI)

  • The affected coronary artery is partially blocked. 
  • It will not show any change in the ST segment on the electrocardiogram.
  • A coronary angiography will evaluate if there is a blockage in a coronary artery and to what degree. The test uses a contrast dye injected into the arteries through a catheter that allows a doctor to see how blood flows through the heart.
  • NSTEMI may cause less heart damage but is still considered a severe heart attack.

Coronary spasm (also known as unstable angina or silent heart attack)

  • It occurs when one of the heart’s arteries tightens to the extent that blood flow stops or reduces drastically. 
  • Imaging and blood test results will tell a doctor if a heart attack has occurred.
  • There is no permanent damage, but the risk of another heart attack or one that may be more serious increases.

Learn more about common cardiology tests.


How is a heart attack different from heart failure?

Heart failure, or congestive heart failure, affects more than six million Americans yearly. The condition causes the heart to be unable to pump sufficient blood around the body. It can start suddenly, such as following a heart attack. Or, it can develop slowly over time due to conditions like high blood pressure, viruses or even a genetic cause.

Heart failure does not refer to the stopping of the heart.

Learn more about heart failure.


How is a heart attack treated?

Treatment options depend on your type of heart attack but typically include:

  • Surgery
  • Medication
  • Follow-up evaluation

Your doctor may also recommend cardiac rehabilitation and lifestyle changes to reduce the likelihood of another heart attack.

Learn more about tips that may help prevent a heart attack.


How Heart-Healthy Are Your Habits?

Our quiz helps you make lifestyle choices that improve your heart health.

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Find Care at Catholic Health

All Catholic Health hospitals in Nassau and Suffolk counties have 24-hour, seven-days-a-week emergency departments that can treat patients presenting with a heart attack.

In addition, Catholic Health is home to St. Francis Heart Center, Long Island’s most-awarded heart program. Cardiac patients have access to the highest level of care to treat a heart attack.

Our chest pain centers at the St. Francis Heart Center at St. Francis Hospital (Roslyn, NY), St. Catherine of Siena Hospital (Smithtown, NY) and Good Samaritan University Hospital (West Islip, NY) provide prompt, highly skilled assessments and treatment of acute chest pain in a matter of minutes.

Call 866-MY-LI-DOC (866-695-4362) to find a Catholic Health physician near you.

Learn more about our chest pain centers. 

Learn more about our cardiology services.

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