Heart Attack 101

Understanding a heart attack

What just happened?

If you or someone you love just had heart attack, you’ve just been through a very difficult experience. Take some time to reflect and appreciate that you or your loved one made it through.

Recovering from a heart attack can be overwhelming as you try to understand what happened and what’s next. You are dealing with new emotions: fear, anxiety, anger, and a sense of powerlessness.

It’s important to remember you are not alone. In the United States, more than 805,000 people just like you have a heart attack every year.

Thousands of people are on the same journey as you.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack happens when your heart muscle cannot get the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function properly.

It’s important to know that every heart attack can be different. However, most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort of the chest. There may also be discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness, or breaking out in a cold sweat.

This is how it feels when one or more of the arteries that carry blood to your heart are becoming narrowed or blocked.

If the heart is starved of oxygen and nutrients, the muscle can be damaged or die—that’s why it’s important to call 911 right away whenever symptoms appear.

Artery Cross Section

Why do heart attacks happen?

There are various risk factors that may have contributed to your heart attack, spanning everything from lifestyle to medical conditions and demographics.

Some risk factors can’t be changed, such as age, gender, and genetics. Others can be managed such as:

  • Lifestyle (diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol)
  • Medical conditions (high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity)

If you’ve already a heart attack, you are at a higher risk of having another one. This is why it’s so important to understand how making some changes can help reduce this risk.


is one of the most important ways to prevent another heart attack

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is in your blood. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is considered “good” because this type carries bad cholesterol away from the arteries. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is considered “bad” because it can build up within the arteries, forming fatty deposits known as plaque.

Over time, high levels of bad cholesterol can build up on the walls of your blood vessels. The bad cholesterol can create clogs and make it difficult for blood to flow through where your body needs it.

Sometimes these clogs can block your blood flow, leading to a devastating heart attack or stroke, and that’s why you need to treat it.

How can I lower bad cholesterol?

The best way to manage your cholesterol is to know your numbers and track them over time.

Bad cholesterol can be lowered by lifestyle changes, but diet and exercise alone can only lower it 14%–20% at most. That is why it is important to talk to your doctor about available treatment options that can help you reduce your high bad cholesterol and risk for a future heart attack.

The most commonly prescribed treatment option is a statin; however, it is important to know that there continue to be advancements in cholesterol management and more treatment options more treatment options are now available to help you better reduce your bad cholesterol even further.


What may have happened in the hospital during my heart attack?

In the hospital, the doctors likely performed one of these procedures to treat your heart attack.

  • They performed a stenting procedure where a “stent,” a tiny metal mesh tube, is put in to hold a blocked artery open to make sure blood can flow through.
  • They performed open heart surgery or “bypass surgery” to create a new physical path for blood to flow around the blocked artery. To do this, they use tissue from an artery or vein in another part of your body and put it in your heart. If there are multiple blocked arteries, you might need more than one bypass.

What type of medications may my doctor have prescribed after my heart attack?

Procedures are not a permanent fix. The risk of another heart attack still remains.

Your doctor probably prescribed you some new medications. Each medication has a specific purpose to help you in your recovery, so it’s very important to take them as prescribed. Some of these medications can reduce your risk of having another heart attack.

Here are the most common types of medications:

Medicines to prevent blood clots

  • After your heart attack, the stent or bypass procedure that you received increases your chances of having a blood clot—which could lead to a stroke.
  • Blood clots are clumps of blood cells, known as platelets.
  • Anti-platelets help keep your blood cells from sticking together.
  • Examples of anti-platelets include Plavix® (clopidogrel), Effient® (prasugrel), Brilinta® (ticagrelor), and Aspirin.

Medicines to lower blood pressure

  • After a heart attack, it’s important to protect your blood vessels.
  • High blood pressure (or hypertension) can damage the walls of your blood vessels and lead to serious health problems. Anti-hypertensive medications work to keep your blood vessels relaxed and open.
  • There are many medications that can lower blood pressure in different ways: diuretics, ACE inhibitors, ARBs, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, and more!

Medicines to lower bad cholesterol

  • Bad cholesterol that has built up overtime likely played a role in your heart attack by clogging at least one of the arteries in your heart.
  • Statins help to lower your levels of bad cholesterol and reduce the risk of another heart attack. They work by slowing the production of cholesterol in your liver.
  • Examples of statins are Lipitor® (atorvastatin), Pravachol® (pravastatin), Crestor® (rosuvastatin), and Zocor® (simvastatin).
  • There are some prescription medications that can be used in addition to statins to lower bad cholesterol and also reduce your risk of another heart attack.

Learn more about one of these medications by clicking below.


How can I tell if I may be having another heart attack?

Heart attacks don’t always happen exactly like in the movies: where the main character clutches their chest in pain and falls backward on the floor. The onset of a heart attack can be more subtle.

If you’ve had a heart attack, it’s important to keep an eye out for signs or symptoms that you are having another.

Listen to your body and call 911 right away if you have any of these common warning signs of a heart attack—especially if it lasts for more than a few minutes. Some of these may go away and then come back.

Upper body discomfort

You feel pressure, tightness, heaviness, burning, squeezing, or aching in the chest that moves to the arms—everyone experiences it a little differently. Women are more likely than men to experience some of the other symptoms, particularly pain in the jaw and back.

Shortness of breath

You suddenly feel dizzy, lightheaded, and extremely weak. You start taking in deep breaths or are panting for air like you’ve just run up a hill, but for no apparent reason.

Abdominal discomfort

You feel heartburn, indigestion, or pain around your stomach. You might have nausea and throw up.

Unusual fatigue

Your usual exercise routine leaves you worn out. You feel extremely tired, even with everyday activities like making the bed or carrying the groceries.

Cold sweat

Your skin gets cold and clammy suddenly even though there is no obvious source of stress.

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Rebound Workbook

Presented by Heart Attack FAQ

Connect with us to download Rebound, our free 12-month heart attack recovery workbook. It is a companion guide to help you return to your life as you navigate recovery. It is full of helpful information, guides for discussions with your doctor, and simple ways to track and manage risk factors of another heart attack.


All the information contained in this website is intended for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Inclusion of specific information is not considered an endorsement of any organization or content, nor do we believe that this website is comprehensive of all the sources related to heart health. Readers are encouraged to consult other sources and talk with their healthcare provider to obtain further information and personal treatment advice.

Connect with us to get the latest information and support through your recovery journey and for a link to download Rebound, our free 12-month heart attack recovery workbook.


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