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Heart Attack


What Is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart muscle becomes blocked. The muscle doesn’t receive enough oxygen, which can damage or kill it. The medical term for heart attack is myocardial infarction.

What Is a STEMI?

An ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) is the most dangerous type of heart attack. It happens when blood flow to the heart is completely blocked. STEMI is sometimes called a “full-blown” heart attack.

Aurora Health Care provides fast, expert heart attack and STEMI care. At 15 locations throughout eastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, we treat heart attacks and put you on the road to recovery.

Heart Attack or Cardiac Arrest?

Some people confuse heart attack with sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), but they have different causes. SCA means the heart stops beating because of an electrical problem such as arrhythmia or atrial fibrillation. Heart attack, on the other hand, happens when blood stops flowing to your heart.

Learn more about sudden cardiac arrest.

World-Class Care

World-Class Heart Attack Care

At Aurora, you can count on personalized, compassionate care from experts in preventing, diagnosing and treating heart attacks.

  • Cath lab staffed by physicians 24/7: Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center is the only hospital in Milwaukee – and one of only a few nationwide – with in-house cardiologists on-site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to clear clogged arteries immediately. With us, you won’t wait for a physician to travel to the cath lab. We have some of the shortest times in the country to open the blocked coronary artery. Find out more about angioplasty and cardiac catheterization.
  • Angioplasty widely available: Only about one-third of U.S. hospitals can provide angioplasty, also known as percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), according to the American Heart Association. People have better PCI results at Aurora than at most hospitals nationwide. We offer angioplasty at 4 locations (and urgently at our other cath lab sites):
  • Surgeons rated highly by national organizations: The Society of Thoracic Surgeons has given us a 3-star rating – the highest quality category – for coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) and valve surgeries. CABG improves the blood supply to the heart muscle by re-routing blood vessels to make a new pathway to the heart. Learn more about coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG).
  • Rehabilitation available at 14 sites: We offer the largest cardiac rehab program in Wisconsin, available at 14 locations, to get you on the road to recovery in your community. Learn more about cardiac rehabilitation.

Warning Signs

Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

Some heart attacks are intense and happen suddenly. Others come on slowly.

What To Do in an Emergency

Receiving treatment as soon as possible for a suspected heart attack can save your life. If you think you may be having a heart attack, call 911 right away.

  • Don’t wait to see if the symptoms go away.
  • Don’t try to drive yourself to the emergency room.

Symptoms of Heart Attack

Some people have a silent – or symptomless – heart attack. This is more likely to happen to people who are elderly, female or diabetic. In these cases, you may not even know you’ve had a heart attack until your doctor discovers it during a routine exam.

Men and women may experience a heart attack differently. The most common heart attack symptoms include:

  • Chest pain: Men most often feel crushing chest pain. Sometimes called angina, chest pain with a heart attack doesn’t go away. It may last more than a few minutes, or it may come and go. It might feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, indigestion or pain.
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper body: Women may feel chest pain, but they may also feel pain in their arms, back, neck or jaw. Men may experience these signs, too.
  • Fatigue: Women, especially, may experience fatigue as a sign of heart attack.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Lightheadedness, sudden dizziness, nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia)

Causes & Risks

Causes of Heart Attack

A heart attack happens when something prevents blood from reaching the heart through one or both of your coronary arteries.

The coronary arteries are the main blood vessels that wrap around the outside of your heart. They supply the heart muscle with oxygen-rich blood.

Several potential problems can cause blood flow to slow or stop:

  • Blood clots: Blood clots cause the majority of heart attacks by blocking the coronary artery. Read more about blood clots.
  • Plaque deposits: Fatty deposits called plaque may form blockages when you have coronary artery disease or atherosclerosis.
  • Coronary artery spasm: A spasm, or sudden tightening, in one of your coronary arteries can trigger a heart attack if it lasts long enough.

Risk Factors for Heart Attack

Many factors can increase your risk of heart attack. Some of them you can’t control, but others you can work to prevent.

Risk factors you can’t change include:

  • Gender: Men are more likely to have a heart attack than women. Women’s risk increases after menopause (when menstrual periods stop), but it’s never as high as men’s risk.
  • Age: Older people have a higher risk of heart attack.
  • Family history: Risks are higher in people whose families have more heart disease. Non-white populations also tend to have higher risk.

You may be able to control other heart attack risk factors. Talk with your doctor about managing:

  • Smoking or tobacco use
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Stress
  • Diabetes
  • Drug and alcohol abuse

Get a Heart Scan for $49

Find out fast if you’re at risk for coronary heart disease.


Diagnosing Heart Attack

When you have a heart attack, everything may seem to happen very quickly. Afterward, you might feel uncertain about all the tests that were performed. These tests help doctors determine what kind of heart attack you had and how severely it affected your heart.

Even before your full diagnosis, we may begin some treatments. Getting care as soon as possible can improve your prognosis. Learn more below about fast treatment for heart attack.

To diagnose a heart attack or STEMI, we might use:

  • Blood tests: Blood tests can check oxygen levels and organ function.
  • Imaging: We may use one or more tests to obtain a picture of your heart and how it is working:
    • Chest X-ray: We may order a chest X-ray to examine the structure of your heart and lungs.
    • Echocardiogram: An echo test (also called heart ultrasound) produces pictures of your heart’s size and motion.
    • Cardiac CT: A computed tomography (CT) scan of the heart creates 3-D images that show calcium deposits that cause blockages.
  • Electrocardiograph testing (EKG): A 12-lead electrocardiogram is our standard electrocardiograph test. During this procedure, you recline on a table while a machine records your heart’s electrical activity using 12 electrodes attached to your body. The test lasts about 10 minutes, and it helps doctors measure your heart’s activity.
  • Holter monitoring: We may send you home with a monitor to track your heart’s activity for 24 to 48 hours.
  • Stress test: Sometimes, we may test you while you exercise, so we can see how your heart functions when it is working hard. A stress test also can be done with medication, if you are unable to exercise.
  • Cardiac catheterization: During a cardiac catheterization procedure, the doctor threads a fine camera through a blood vessel to examine your arteries and heart. Sometimes, we use dye during a cardiac catheterization to see how blood is flowing through the heart. This test is called coronary angiography.

Learn more about heart and vascular diagnosis and testing at Aurora.


Fast Treatment for Heart Attack

If you’ve had a heart attack or warning signs of an approaching heart attack, your doctor can work with you on a treatment plan to protect your health and your future.

After a heart attack, your treatment might include:

  • Angioplasty or percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI): Coronary angioplasty, also called PCI, opens arteries so blood can flow freely again. In angioplasty, the doctor threads a fine tube (catheter) through a blood vessel into the heart. Learn more about cardiac electrophysiology.
  • Thrombolysis: If you reach a hospital within a few hours of a suspected heart attack, we may be able to provide thrombolytic therapy. In this treatment, we inject clot-dissolving drugs to restore blood flow in your coronary artery.
  • Implantable defibrillator: In some cases, doctors may recommend an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). This device helps your heart keep beating in rhythm. Read more about ICDs.
  • Coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery: Our surgeons are highly rated by the Society of Thoracic Surgeons for the CABG procedure (pronounced like “cabbage”). CABG improves the blood supply to the heart muscle by re-routing blood vessels to make a new pathway to the heart. Learn more about coronary artery bypass grafting.

Prevention & Rehabilitation

After a heart attack, or if you are at risk for a heart attack, your doctor might discuss ways to improve your health, including:

  • Lifestyle changes: Healthy diet, stress reduction and exercise may reduce your risk and improve healing.
  • Medications: Your doctor may recommend aspirin, clot-dissolving agents or cholesterol-lowering drugs.

We also offer the largest cardiac rehab program in Wisconsin, available at 14 locations, to get you on the road to recovery in your community. Learn more about cardiac rehabilitation.

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