For all of the human body's complexity, it has limited ways of telling us that something is wrong. Is this aching, vomiting and sweating the flu or something worse? That's why many of those affected by a heart attack don't realize it's happening until it's too late. While a heart attack blocks your heart from getting the blood it needs, the symptoms of one can be confusing.
A common misconception that many people believe is that heart attacks only happen to people who have an unhealthy lifestyle. In fact, your likelihood of experiencing a heart attack depends on environmental factors, age, genetics, and many other variables beyond just eating poorly and not exercising enough.
So what does a heart attack look and feel like? Prepare yourself here.
While many heart attack symptoms are relatively the same no matter your gender, there are also notable differences. For one thing, heart attacks are more deadly for women. In fact, the heart disease that leads to heart attacks is the number one killer of women in the United States.
But symptoms do vary. Women are more likely to feel indigestion and have sleeplessness around the time of the heart attack, whereas men are more likely to sweat and feel physically weak.
A heart attack happens when the normal flow of blood is cut off from reaching the heart. Blood carries oxygen to and from the heart, and if the heart doesn't get oxygen, it stops functioning. But why does this happen?
Most commonly, this happens when an artery is blocked from the inside. When fat and cholesterol circulate through your blood stream, they begin to build up on the inside of the arteries, creating a residue known as "plaque." Plaque build-up narrows arteries to the point where not enough blood (or sometimes any blood at all) can pass through. Eventually, a blood clot forms around the plaque. That's when things really start to go wrong.
As the plaque in your arteries builds up and narrows the passageways of blood traveling to the heart, sometimes the hard, shell-like coating on the plaque can rupture. When this rupture happens, fat and waste can become exposed and leak into your blood stream. Sensing that something is wrong, your blood cells spring into action to try to save you from the exposed fat in the plaque.
There's only one problem: because the artery is already clogged by plaque, the blood that rushes to the site of the exposure forms a clot too big for oxygen-rich blood to get past. Your body senses that something is wrong and tries to save you, but can become the main cause of the heart attack itself.
When your heart is cut off from oxygen, some is the rest of your body. That isn't the worst part. Once arteries are blocked, the heart muscle begins to harden and die within a very short amount of time.
As it becomes oxygen-starved, the heart sends signals to your body and brain that something is severely wrong, but even then, the heart muscle will start to die right away. The longer the clot prevents oxygen from passing through, the more of the heart muscle that may die. The heart will still continue trying to beat, even as it's dying, and may work even harder to try to save your life, but this muscle death can be permanent if not treated or resolved quickly.