Heart Attacks

This information explains heart attacks, including symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.  

A heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction (MI), occurs when one of the arteries in your heart becomes blocked. This can cause a part of your heart muscle to die.


  • Pain, pressure, or discomfort in your chest
  • Pain, tingling, or discomfort in your arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath at rest and on mild exertion such as walking several blocks or climbing 1 flight of stairs
  • Wheezing
  • Sweating
  • Racing or irregular heartbeat
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Indigestion or nausea with or without vomiting. This is a common symptom of heart attacks in women. 
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If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) can begin treating it on the way to your nearest emergency room.

When you arrive at the emergency room, you may have 1 or more of the following tests:

  • An electrocardiogram (EKG). This test measures the electrical activity of your heart.
  • Blood tests to test for a protein called troponin that is released when your heart muscle is damaged.
  • An echocardiogram (echo). This is a test that uses ultrasound to produce images of your heart. It shows how your heart is beating and pumping blood and can show abnormalities in your heart muscle and heart valves.
  • A stress test, which helps doctors see if your heart is getting enough blood when you are under stress. For this test, you may be getting medications through an intravenous (IV) line.
  • Cardiac catheterization (“cath” or angiogram). Your doctor will insert a thin catheter (long, flexible tube) into an artery in your arm or leg and thread it up to your heart. He or she will inject dye through the catheter to see your arteries with an x-ray machine. This shows if there are blockages in any of the arteries in your heart. 
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A heart attack can be treated with medication, cardiac catheterization, or surgery. 


There are several types of medications for treating and preventing future heart attacks that work in different ways. A few examples of each type are listed but there are others.

  • Aspirin, which thins your blood. This helps to prevent blood clots and decreases the risk of death after a heart attack.
  • Anti-thrombotic medications that thin your blood and prevent blood clots from forming. Some examples are heparin and enoxaparin (Lovenox®).
  • Prescription medications, which prevent your platelets from clumping inside your arteries. These medications include clopidogrel (Plavix®), prasugrel (Effient®), and ticagrelor (Brilinta®) and can prevent re-blockage if stents are placed (see “Cardiac catheterization with angioplasty” section below).
  • Beta blockers, which slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. This helps to reduce the amount of work your heart has to do. Examples of beta blockers are carvedilol (Coreg®) and metoprolol (Lopressor®).
  • Nitrates, which widen your coronary arteries. This causes more blood to be brought to your heart muscle and can also reduce chest pain. Some examples of nitrates are nitroglycerin and isosorbide dinitrate.
  • ACE inhibitors, which relax your blood vessels. This helps your heart work better after a heart attack. They can also decrease the amount of damage that a heart attack causes. Some examples are enalapril (Vasotec®) and lisinopril (Prinivil®).
  • Statins, which lower your cholesterol. This reduces the fatty deposits inside your arteries that can lead to future heart attacks. Some examples of statins are atorvastatin (Lipitor®) and rosuvastatin (Crestor®).

Sometimes people who are having heart attacks need more advanced care, including catheterization or surgery. If you have a heart attack while at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK), we may need to transfer you to another hospital for the following:

Cardiac catheterization with angioplasty

During a cardiac catheterization, your doctor can do an angioplasty. In an angioplasty, a thin tube with a balloon at the end is threaded into your artery. When the catheter is in place, your doctor inflates the balloon to push outward against the wall of your artery. This widens the artery and restores blood flow to your heart. Your doctor can also insert a stent, which is a hollow tube that keeps your artery open.  


In a coronary artery bypass surgery, your doctor will take a blood vessel from another part of your body, such as your arm or leg. He or she will attach this vein or artery to your coronary artery just above and below where you have the blockage. This allows your blood to bypass (go around) the blockage.  

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Caring for Yourself at Home After a Heart Attack

  • Quit smoking if you are a smoker. If you want to quit, call our Tobacco Treatment Program at 212-610-0507. You can also ask your nurse about the program.
  • Eat a healthy diet, rich in fruits and vegetables. Ask your nurse for the resource Eat Your Way to Better Health. You may also want to speak with a dietitian about your diet.
  • Speak with your primary care doctor or cardiologist (heart doctor) about how to manage other health problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
  • Join a cardiac rehabilitation program, which is a program that helps improve the health and well-being of people who have heart problems. The program includes exercise, ways to reduce your risk of other heart problems, and counseling.
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