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Heart attack - causes, treatment & recovery

Moving image showing where on the body heart attack symptoms are felt

A heart attack happens when a blockage in your coronary artery causes part of your heart muscle to be starved of blood and oxygen. Most heart attacks occur when a blood clot forms inside the artery after a fatty deposit (called atheroma) has broken off from the artery wall.

A heart attack is a medical emergency and can be life threatening. If you think you or someone else is having a heart attack, call 999 for an ambulance immediately.

If you’re not sure, it’s still important to seek medical attention as soon as possible to be on the safe side.


Symptoms of a heart attack

Heart attack symptoms vary from one person to another. The most common signs of a heart attack are: 

  • pain or discomfort in your chest that suddenly occurs and doesn’t go away
  • pain that may spread to your left or right arm, or to your neck, jaw, back or stomach. For some people the pain or tightness is severe, while other people just feel uncomfortable
  • feeling sick, sweaty, light-headed or short of breath.

It’s possible to have a heart attack without experiencing the above symptoms or 'classic' chest pain. This is more common in the elderly, women, or those with diabetes as the condition can cause nerve damage which can affect how you feel pain.

Learn more about the symptoms of a heart attack

What should I do if I think I'm having a heart attack?

The first thing to do if you think you're having a heart attack is to phone 999 immediately for an ambulance. 

Don’t worry if you’re not completely sure whether your symptoms are a heart attack, it’s really important that you seek medical attention regardless.

If you’re having a heart attack or you think you’re having a heart attack:

  • sit down and remain calm
  • take a 300mg aspirin if you have one within reach
  • wait for the paramedics.

Women have heart attacks too

We know that women tend to wait longer before calling 999 after first experiencing heart attack symptoms. This may be because women are less likely to recognise the symptoms as a condition that requires urgent treatment. A recent study funded by the BHF emphasises the need for both sexes to recognise and act on the warning signs.

In the UK an average of 3 women die of coronary heart disease every hour, many of them due to a heart attack. Delaying calling 999 can dramatically reduce your chance of survival.

Read more about women and heart attacks.

What causes a heart attack?

Most heart attacks happen when the inside of one or more of your coronary arteries become narrowed due to a gradual build-up of fatty deposits called atheroma.

If a piece of this fatty material breaks off, a blood clot forms to try and repair the damage to the artery wall. This blood clot can block your coronary artery, causing part of your heart muscle to be starved of blood and oxygen. This is a heart attack.

Other rarer causes of a heart attack include spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) where one or more of the coronary arteries tear.

How is a heart attack diagnosed?

The ambulance team will do a test called an electrocardiogram (ECG) to try to find out if your symptoms are due to a heart attack. 

The test involves putting small sticky patches called electrodes on your arms, legs and chest that measure the electrical impulses in your heart. The paramedics may be able to diagnose if you’re possibly having a heart attack from changes that are seen on your ECG. 

Once you arrive at hospital you may need further checks to confirm if you’ve had a heart attack, including:

  • an assessment of your symptoms and medical history
  • physical examinations, including measuring your blood pressure and monitoring your heart rhythm and heart rate 
  • blood tests including a blood test called troponin test (to detect if there has been any damage to your heart muscle)
  • further ECG tests and an echocardiogram

While at hospital, you might also hear a heart attack called acute coronary syndrome, myocardial infarction (MI) or coronary thrombosis.

How is a heart attack treated?

Early treatment to get the blood flowing to the damaged part of your heart muscle again can save your life and limit the amount of permanent damage to your heart muscle.

Many people who have a heart attack need to have emergency treatment to restore blood flow the coronary artery.

  • you might have a treatment called primary angioplasty, which is a procedure to re-open the blocked coronary artery and usually involves inserting one or more stents to help keep the narrowed artery open 
  • you also might have thrombolysis, which means giving you a ‘clot-busting’ medicine to dissolve the blood clot that is blocking the coronary artery

In some types of heart attack people do not receive either of these two treatments because it may not be safe or appropriate.

You will usually stay in hospital for about two to five days, depending on what treatment you have had and how well you begin to recover. 

Recovering from a heart attack

Many people make a full recovery and are able to return to their normal activities within a few months. Some people may find that they are not able to do everything they previously did, but attending cardiac rehabilitation increases your chances of getting back to normal as quickly as possible. 

A heart attack can be a frightening experience and it can take time to come to terms with what has happened.

It’s natural to be worried about your recovery and future. It can also leave you feeling frustrated, confused and possibly isolated. Visit our support page for information and advice on practical and emotional matters. 

Cardiac rehabilitation

After a heart attack you are usually referred to a cardiac rehabilitation service for specialist advice, support and physical activity, if there is one available in your area.

Cardiac rehab is a mix of exercise, education, relaxation and psychological support. It aims to help you recover and get back to living your life as fully as possible. 

Learn more about cardiac rehab.

Can I reduce my risk of having a heart attack?

The following lifestyle factors can increase your chances of developing coronary heart disease and having a heart attack: 
The more risk factors you have the higher your risk. The good news is living a healthy lifestyle can help lower your risk and there are lots of small changes you can make. Find out more about making changes to your lifestyle to keep your heart healthy
Having one heart attack does increase the risk of having another, but this risk is greatly reduced with the correct treatment. If you take the medicines your doctors have prescribed for you and follow a healthy lifestyle, you can significantly reduce your risk. 

Family history 

If you have a family history of cardiovascular disease, you have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases such as angina, heart attack, heart failure and stroke.

You are considered to have a family history of heart and circulatory disease if:

  • your father or brother was under the age of 55 when they were diagnosed with heart and circulatory disease, or
  • your mother or sister was under the age of 65 when they were diagnosed with heart and circulatory disease.
If you are aged 40–74 you can ask for an NHS health check in England only, but similar schemes are available in other parts of the UK. Your doctor should write to you every five years about this, but you can also just make an appointment to check your blood pressure.
Find out more about NHS health checks.
For women, your hormones may give you some protection from heart and circulatory diseases in your pre-menopause years.
Post menopause, your risk rises - and continues to rise as your get older. It is then important to be aware of the lifestyle factors that can increase your chances of developing heart and circulatory diseases.

Read more about heart attacks

Help and information

Heart attack bookletHeart attack case study

This booklet is for people who have had a heart attack, and their family and friends. It explains what a heart attack is and how it is treated, including primary coronary angioplasty. It also has information about recovery from a heart attack, and what you can do to help yourself stay healthy.

Order or download

This booklet is also available to download in large print.

Researching heart attack, saving lives

Sadly, not everyone survives a heart attack. But things are changing. Research helps us improve the treatment and prevention of heart attacks. That's why we fund scientists, like BHF Professor Steve Watson, to help us understand more about how we can treat heart attacks.