Heart Health

Updated 06 October 2014

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when part of the heart muscle is sufficiently deprived of blood to result in death of muscle cells. This is an emergency.


A heart attack occurs when part of the heart muscle is sufficiently deprived of blood to result in death of muscle cells. This is called an acute myocardial infarction (AMI) (where infarct means cell death). Most cases are caused by plaque rupture and thrombosis.

The symptoms of an AMI are severe – a pressing pain in the centre of the chest that often spreads to the arms and/or jaw. You may feel extremely anxious and nauseous. People often describe a feeling of impending doom.

Your blood pressure falls, you look pale and grey, your pulse is rapid and scarcely perceptible and you are sweating profusely. You may also feel short of breath.

This is an emergency and you must be rapidly diagnosed and treated in hospital. About 20% of untreated patients die within the first two hours of an AMI and another 20% will die in the following four weeks.

Treatment with “clot-busting” medication within the first two to four hours of the heart attack decreases the chances of early death from abnormal heart rhythms, so it is very important to get to a hospital as soon as possible.

Heart-attack symptoms different in women

Heart-attack symptoms are often atypical in women - a situation that can even confuse their doctors.

While men may have the classic central chest pain, women (and their doctors) often confuse their chest pain with indigestion or heartburn.

Women may also experience:

  •     jaw pain;
  •     anxiety;
  •     shoulder pain;
  •     sweating;
  •     shortness of breath;
  •     dizziness;
  •     nausea; and
  •     unusual fatigue.

Recognising early heart attacks helps prevent a larger heart attack, where more heart function can be lost and recovery may take longer.

- (The Heart and Stroke Foundation SA)


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