A heart attack, also known as acute myocardial infarction (AMI) is what happens when blood cannot get to part of the heart muscle. Part of the heart muscle then begins to die. A heart attack can be deadly. It is vital to get help as soon as possible.

Chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack. You may feel the pain in only one part of your body, or it may move from your chest to your arms, shoulder, neck, teeth, jaw, belly area, or back. If you have symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 right away and get to a Saint Luke’s Health System hospital fast.

Every minute counts during a heart attack. The Emergency Departments at each of our hospitals provide protocol-driven chest pain management. Our clinicians use time-saving measures to ensure patients having a heart attack receive critical cardiac care—including lifesaving emergency angioplasty—as quickly as possible.


Symptoms of a Heart Attack


Man holding hand to chest in pain as worried woman next to him calls for help on cell phone.

A heart attack is also known as acute myocardial infarction, or AMI. It's an urgent message from your heart that it’s starved for oxygen. When a clot blocks a blood vessel feeding the heart (coronary artery), oxygen-rich blood can’t reach a part or all of your heart. Then tissues of the heart muscle start to die. This causes symptoms of a heart attack. The sooner you get to the hospital, the sooner treatment can start to help save your life and your heart.

Don’t be afraid to call 911, even if you’re not sure you are having a heart attack. If you don’t know the cause of your symptoms, assume it’s a heart attack. Play it safe and get medical help. Don't drive yourself to the emergency department.

If you think someone else is having a heart attack, call 911 instead of driving the person to the ER. The 911 dispatcher may tell you to give the person aspirin while waiting for help to arrive. If the dispatcher doesn’t tell you to do this, don’t give the person aspirin. Aspirin can be dangerous under certain circumstances.

Warning signs of a heart attack

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, burning, fullness, tightness, or pain. It is often described as something heavy sitting on your chest.

  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.

Note for women. Like men, women most commonly have chest pain or discomfort as a heart attack symptom. But women are somewhat more likely than men to have some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea, and vomiting, back pain, or jaw pain.

Older people may also have atypical symptoms. The symptoms include loss of consciousness (syncope), weakness, or confusion (delirium). These symptoms should be looked at right away. Ignoring them can lead to critical illness or death.

If you have diabetes, high blood sugar can damage nerves in your body over time. This may keep you from feeling pain caused by a heart problem, leading to a “silent” heart problem. If you don’t feel symptoms, you are less able to get treatment right away. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to lower your risk for silent heart problems.

People who have had one heart attack are at risk for having another heart attack. Your provider may prescribe medicine such as nitroglycerin to take for chest pain. You may also need medicine to lower your heart rate and blood pressure to prevent angina and another heart attack. Remember to take any medicines your provider has given as directed. Don't stop these medicines without speaking with him or her first.

Warning Signs

Warning Signs of Heart Attack

Man walking upstairs holding hand to chest.

Since you’ve had a heart attack, your risk of having another is increased. Before you leave the hospital, ask your healthcare provider what symptoms to watch for. The list below may help. Keep in mind that the symptoms of a second heart attack may be similar—or different—from the ones of the first. Also, remember that women may have certain symptoms that are different from men.

The faster you get help during a heart attack, the less damage your heart will likely have. If you think you’re having another heart attack, call 911 right away. Don’t wait longer than 5 minutes.

  • Pressure, squeezing, discomfort or pain in the chest

  • Other discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulders, arms, or back

  • Severe shortness of breath

  • Dizziness or faintness

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Sweating


  • American Heart Association www.heart.org

  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) www.nhlbi.nih.gov 

  • Women’s Hearts: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease www.womenheart.org

Living Well After a Heart Attack

Living Well After a Heart Attack

Recovery from a heart attack may take several months. As you gradually get better, don’t go back to the same habits that may have led to your heart attack. Take your medications, and stick to the changes you’ve made to improve your heart and overall health. Here are more ways to help you live well after a heart attack.

Follow up with your provider

See your health care provider for follow-up visits as directed. During these visits, your provider will ask you about your medications and how well they are working. If needed, your provider may change your dosage or prescribe new medications. You may have tests done again, such as blood tests, EKGs, or exercise stress tests. If you have questions, keep a list and ask them during these visits.

Take care of yourself

Doctor pressing stethoscope to man's back and listening

  • Don’t push yourself. You may feel better, but listen to your body and don’t push yourself too hard or too fast. If you go back to work, consider going part time at first.

  • Build in “stress breaks.” Every few hours, stop what you’re doing and do deep breathing or visualization.

  • Get enough sleep. This is especially important after a heart attack. Sleep helps your body heal.

  • Stay alert for signs of another heart attack. Get help right away if you think you’re having another heart attack. The sooner you get treatment, the less damage will be done to your heart.

  • Be mindful of the good habits you've learned so you don't regress back into your previously unhealthy lifestyle.

Rely on your supports

  • Friends, families, and co-workers may want to help but don’t know how. Be honest about your heart attack and give practical suggestions for helping out.

  • Tell friends, relatives, employers, and co-workers about limitations you have and how they can help.

  • Encourage friends and co-workers to share lunchtime walks and healthy snacks with you.

  • Pick a few close friends to encourage you whenever you have trouble with the changes you’re making.

  • Keep using support groups or cardiac rehab programs. These give ongoing support and structure for keeping heart-healthy changes for good.

  • Use your resources to help you adhere to your new lifestyle. This will allow you to make changes that last.

For family and friends

Your loved one will have ups and downs. That’s normal. Help him or her focus on the positive. Sticking to lifestyle changes will help your loved one feel better and be healthier. Keep in mind that if you make the same changes, it can help your loved one make and keep these new healthy habits. Always communicate your concerns with your loved ones and keep the conversation open.

Leaving the Hospital

Heart Attack: Leaving the Hospital

Your recovery will continue at home. How long it takes to recover depends on several things. These include how much damage the heart attack caused, what complications occurred, and what treatments you had. When you leave the hospital, you’ll receive instructions on how to care for yourself at home. Be sure you have all the information you need.

Woman talking with a doctor before she leaves the hospital

Questions for your provider

Before you leave the hospital, make sure to know the answers to these questions:

  • When should I schedule my first follow-up appointment? How often are these appointments needed?

  • What medications do I need and how do I take them? When do I need to come back to have these checked on a re-adjusted, if necessary?

  • What further tests do I need?

  • What symptoms should I watch for? What are the signs and symptoms of a condition that requires immediate attention?

  • How soon can I start a cardiac rehab program?

  • When can I return to work? When can I drive? Be active? Have sex?

  • How can I get help managing payment for my medical care?

Joining a cardiac rehab program

Cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) helps you recover after a heart attack. This program helps you learn how to make changes to improve your health and reduce your chances of having another heart attack. You might start an inpatient program while you’re in the hospital. If not, ask your health care provider about finding a program to join after you leave the hospital.

First Aid

First Aid: Heart Attacks

Woman on phone.A heart attack (myocardial infarction, or AMI) is an emergency. It can happen suddenly from a blockage or sudden narrowing of your arteries and reduced blood circulation to your heart muscle. It is the result of years of damage to your blood vessels. Over time, fatty substances collect on the walls of the heart's arteries. This is due to genetic influences as well as lifestyle choices, many of which can result in chronic disease. These arteries become narrower as the deposits build up within the artery walls. Once one of these arteries narrows enough to stop oxygen supply to an area of the heart, a heart attack results.

Step 1. Call 911 NOW!

  • Call 911 for emergency medical services. Getting care right away may keep the heart from stopping. It may help reduce damage to the heart muscle to a minimum.

  • When a heart attack is suspected, the victim can be encouraged to chew 1 adult dose or 2 low-dose (baby) aspirin tablets. If you are uncertain that the chest pain is from a heart attack, this can be delayed until the emergency medical services arrive.

Step 2. Keep the heart attack victim calm

  • Have the victim stop all activities.

  • Reassure the victim. This will keep him or her calm, so the heart uses less oxygen.

  • Loosen any clothing that may restrict breathing. This includes ties, collars, and belts.

Step 3. Monitor the heart attack victim

  • If the person shows signs that he or she has stopped breathing or is becoming unresponsive, or his or her pulse has stopped, start CPR right away.

  • Do CPR by pushing hard and fast in the center of the chest. Try to allow the chest to recoil or completely expand in between each compression. The goal is to push 100 to 120 times per minute. Emergency dispatchers on the telephone can give instructions on doing CPR.

  • Don't worry about doing rescue breaths during CPR, unless you have training to do this. If you have the training or able to do rescue breaths (previously called mouth-to-mouth resuscitation), the goal is to provide 2 breaths for every 30 compressions.

  • Continue CPR until emergency professionals arrive or the heart attack victim starts to move.

Warning signs of heart attack

The warning signs of a heart attack can include any of the following:

  • Chest pain or constriction. This is like a belt squeezing the chest

  • Heaviness in the chest area. This is as if a heavy weight is resting on the chest.

  • Heaviness or pain going to the arms, shoulders, jaw, or teeth

  • Shortness of breath

  • Pale or gray skin tone and sweating. Also, cool, damp skin.

  • Feeling nauseated

  • Symptoms that aren't relieved by heart medicine or nitroglycerin

  • Feeling heart burn or indigestion


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