What is a heart attack?
Often characterized by chest pain, a heart attack occurs when your heart can’t get enough oxygen because its blood supply has been blocked. When this happens, it’s crucial to act quickly as damage to the heart begins within minutes.
If you or a loved one experience a heart attack, our emergency team is ready 24/7/365 with life-saving treatments to restore blood flow to your heart and reduce damage to the heart muscle.
Heart attack symptoms
Heart attack symptoms can differ in men and women. For both men and women, the most common symptom of a heart attack is mild or strong pain in the center of the chest.
Here are some other symptoms of a heart attack:
- Pain in one or both arms
- Shortness of breath, with or without chest pain
- Pain in the neck or jaw, back or shoulders (this is more common in women)
- Sudden or profuse sweating
- Nausea or vomiting
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Difficulty breathing
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
Heart attack risk factors
Certain behaviors, genetics and risk factors can increase your chances of developing heart disease, including heart attacks. These include:
- Smoking: Tobacco is linked to causing blockages and narrowing of the arteries, which means restricted blood and oxygen flow.
- High cholesterol: Nearly 34 million Americans have higher-than-normal cholesterol. Having high cholesterol levels, especially LDL or “bad” cholesterol, increases your risk for developing heart disease.
- High blood pressure: One-third of American adults have high blood pressure, or hypertension. Hypertension increases the risk of not only having a heart attack but also stroke, heart failure and kidney failure.
- Physical inactivity: Living a sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor for heart disease. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise five days a week can greatly reduce your risk.
- Diabetes: Those with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than those who do not have the condition.
- Being overweight: People who have excess body fat — especially around the waist area — are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke, even if they have no other risk factors.
- Family history: If you have a family member who has been diagnosed with heart disease prematurely (before age 55 for men or age 65 for women), you are at a greater risk for developing a heart condition.
- Age: The risk of having a heart attack increases with age.
Diagnosing a heart attack
Our team of heart specialists are experienced in diagnosing and treating heart disease at all stages, including heart attacks. Our team will run tests to check if your signs and symptoms, such as chest pain, indicate a heart attack or another condition.
Tests to diagnose a heart attack may include:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) – This non-invasive test uses small sensors attached to your chest and arms to record your heart’s electrical activity.
- Blood tests – These tests can also rule out any issues with your thyroid, liver or kidneys.
- Chest X-ray – This allows your doctor to see the condition of your lungs and heart, and potentially rule out other causes of your symptoms.
- Echocardiogram – A wand-like device is placed on your chest and uses sound waves to create a video of your heart working.
- Cardiac catheterization – During this minimally invasive procedure, a long, thin tube is inserted into your heart for diagnostic testing and to check for any blockages. Many people are able to remain awake during the procedure.
- Stress test – This test involves monitoring your heart while you exercise.
Heart attack treatment
At Geisinger, our dedicated and highly trained team of heart care specialists will quickly assess your cardiac issue.
If it’s determined that you have experienced or are experiencing a heart attack, we’ll act fast and start your treatment. Depending on your situation, one or more of the following treatments may be recommended:
Angioplasty is a procedure that restores the heart’s blood flow by opening blocked arteries. During an angioplasty, a thin tube (called a catheter) with a tiny balloon is inserted into a blood vessel in your arm or groin. The tube is then threaded to the artery, where the balloon inflates to gently widen the artery, so blood can flow.
Treatment may also include a heart stent procedure. When an artery becomes narrowed due to fatty buildup, a small wire tube (called a stent) can be inserted to keep the artery open, reducing the risk of a heart attack.
At Geisinger, our heart surgeons use the latest techniques to treat heart conditions, including minimally invasive surgery, to offer you the best outcomes and path for healing. Our surgeons are highly trained and board certified, which means they have passed an optional national exam to demonstrate their medical expertise. Many of our surgeons are also fellowship trained, holding additional training in specific types of cardiac surgery.
The following surgeries may be recommended to repair or replace a heart valve or open a blocked artery or arteries.
- Heart bypass surgery – Officially called coronary artery bypass grafting (and commonly shortened to CABG), this surgery treats severe coronary artery disease. In CABG, a healthy artery that your body can spare is attached to the blocked coronary artery. This creates a graft that bypasses the blockage, allowing blood to flow to your heart again.
- Heart valve surgery – Heart valve surgery is open-heart surgery to repair or replace a malfunctioning heart valve. Though it requires a hospital stay and recovery period, heart valve surgery can greatly reduce your symptoms and help you get back to your everyday life.
There are several lifestyle changes your doctor may suggest to begin to undo damage caused by heart disease. These may include:
- Quitting smoking
- Change in diet
- Losing weight
- Reducing stress
- Emotional support
If you’ve suffered a cardiac event, you may be a good candidate for cardiac rehab.
Cardiac rehab is most often for patients who have a heart attack, heart valve surgery, heart failure or bypass surgery. Cardiac rehabilitation programs are supervised by a medical professional and are focused on helping you make heart-healthy life choices to prevent future heart issues.
In cardiac rehab you'll:
- Learn about a heart-healthy lifestyle. Our dietitians and nutritionists will help you develop healthy eating habits, learn how to manage your condition and get assistance to quit smoking or take other steps to improve your heart health and lower risk factors.
- Begin an exercise program. Our therapists and physicians will design an exercise program to help you build strength, lose weight and improve your cardiovascular system. They’ll monitor your progress closely to prevent injury.
- Start counseling. Stress is a risk factor for many heart conditions. Our counselors and therapists will work with you to identify what stresses you out and help you cope with it.
Heart care at Geisinger
Our heart team is here to provide you and your loved ones with compassionate care and the most advanced heart treatments available. We offer the latest, most minimally invasive procedures for both diagnoses and treatment.
Quicker recovery and less time in the hospital means more time for you to do the things you love with those you love. We offer:
- Unmatched expertise – Our heart team consists of surgeons, doctors and specialists, many of whom are fellowship trained. This team of highly trained specialists treats many patients with heart conditions each year and is focused on delivering the most personalized, excellent care that is suited to each patient’s needs.
- World-class care, close to home – With locations throughout central, northeast and south-central Pennsylvania, our experienced heart team provides consultations and comprehensive care. We offer leading-edge treatment options and tailored-to-you care backed by the expertise and innovation of a nationally recognized health system.
- Fastest heart attack care in the region – We consistently top the national average for "door to balloon" time, the time between your arrival at our hospital and life-saving angioplasty balloon treatment. The quicker you are treated, the less damage to the heart and the better the chance for recovery.
- Level 1 Heart Attack Program – We partner with emergency ambulance and helicopter services, community hospitals and angioplasty referral centers. This collaboration means our patients receive the fastest treatment available.
- Women’s heart health specialists – We have a strong women’s heart health program that includes leading-edge research. In addition, all of our doctors are trained to recognize the symptoms of heart attacks in women, which can present differently than in men.
- Genetic testing and counseling programs – Special research programs, such as MyCode, are only available at Geisinger. Participating in MyCode allows you to contribute to genetic research. By participating, some may receive information about their own genetic risks. Learn about MyCode.