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Signs & Symptoms of a Heart Attack and Stroke

Nearly 500,000 Americans die of heart attack each year, with most victims waiting as long as three hours before seeking medical attention.

You may be having a heart attack if you feel ...

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing, pain or discomfort in the center of the chest which last for more than two minutes
  • Pain or discomfort which spreads to the shoulders, neck or arms
  • Pain, dizziness, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath
  • Any of the above symptoms which disappear with rest and then return with exertion

heart monitor

Stroke Warning Signs

The American Stroke Association says these are the warning signs of stroke:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body   
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding   
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes   
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination   
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

What is a heart attack?

According to the American Heart Association, a heart attack occurs when the blood supply to part of the heart muscle itself -- the myocardium -- is severely reduced or stopped. The medical term for heart attack is myocardial infarction. The reduction or stoppage happens when one or more of the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle is blocked.

This is usually caused by the buildup of plaque (deposits of fat-like substances), a process called atherosclerosis. The plaque can eventually burst, tear or rupture, creating a "snag" where a blood clot forms and blocks the artery. This leads to a heart attack. A heart attack is also sometimes called a coronary thrombosis or coronary occlusion.

If the blood supply is cut off for more than a few minutes, muscle cells suffer permanent injury and die. This can kill or disable someone, depending on how much heart muscle is damaged.
Sometimes a coronary artery temporarily contracts or goes into spasm. When this happens the artery narrows and blood flow to part of the heart muscle decreases or stops. We're not sure what causes a spasm. A spasm can occur in normal-appearing blood vessels as well as in vessels partly blocked by atherosclerosis. A severe spasm can cause a heart attack.