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Heart power the whole body and needs generous supply of oxygen and nutrients, which it receives from blood pumped through the two coronary arteries and their branches. 

A heart attack occurs when a blood clot blocks one of the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. The medical term for a heart attack is acute myocardial infarction (AMI). The underlying cause of a heart attack is coronary heart disease (CHD). CHD occurs when fatty deposits (called plaque or atheroma) slowly build up on the inner wall of the coronary arteries and cause the arteries to become narrow. 

If a blood clot forms in the narrowed artery and completely blocks the blood supply to a part of your heart, it can cause a heart attack. The severity of the heart attack depends on how much heart muscle is permanently damaged.

Heart attack is a medical emergency

Warning signs of heart attack

Warning signs vary from person to person and they may not always be sudden or severe. Although chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack, some people will not experience chest pain at all, while others will experience only mild chest pain or discomfort.

When having a heart attack you may experience pain, pressure, heaviness or tightness in one or more parts of your upper body, in combination with other symptoms. People have described this as ‘like an elephant sitting on my chest’, ‘a belt being tightened around my chest’, ‘bad indigestion’ or ‘feeling not quite right’. You may have a choking feeling in your throat. Your arms may feel useless and heavy.

The warning signs of a heart attack include pain, pressure, heaviness or tightness in one or more of your:

  • chest
  • shoulder(s)
  • neck
  • arm(s)
  • jaw
  • back.

You may also:

  • feel nauseous
  • feel dizzy or light-headed
  • have a cold sweat
  • feel short of breath.

You may have just one of these symptoms or you may have a combination of them. Symptoms can come on suddenly or develop over minutes and get progressively worse. Symptoms usually last for at least 10 minutes.


Learning the warning signs and following an action plan gives you the best chance of surviving your heart attack. You can download a free heart attack action plan.

Diagnosis of a heart attack

Tests to help diagnose a heart attack include:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) – a reading of the heart’s electrical impulses. Sometimes, this test is done while you are exercising on a bike or treadmill, which is called an exercise or stress ECG
  • a blood test – to measure levels of substances released into the blood when the heart muscle is damaged
  • coronary angiogram (or cardiac catheterisation) – a special x-ray of your coronary arteries.

Risk factors for coronary heart disease (CHD)

You can reduce your risk of developing CHD and having a heart attack by removing or reducing risk factors. These include:

  • smoking – either being a smoker or inhaling other people’s smoke (passive smoking)
  • having high cholesterol
  • being physically inactive
  • unhealthy eating
  • being overweight or obese
  • having high blood pressure
  • having diabetes
  • depression, being socially isolated and not having quality social support.
  • Other factors that can increase the risk of developing CHD include:
  • getting older
  • being male
  • having a family history of early death from CHD, such as a first-degree relative younger than 60
  • being a post-menopausal woman.

Changing your lifestyle can reduce your risk of heart attack

Addressing the lifestyle factors that contribute to CHD can help reduce your risk of heart attack. Things you can do include:

  • take medicines as prescribed
  • be smoke-free and avoid exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke
  • enjoy healthy eating
  • be physically active
  • manage your blood pressure
  • manage your cholesterol
  • achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
  • develop good social support networks and join groups.

Things to remember

  • Warning signs differ from person to person.
  • No two heart attacks are the same.
  • Knowing the warning signs of heart attack and acting quickly can reduce the damage to your heart muscle and increase your chance of survival.