A heart attack or unstable angina is caused by
sudden narrowing or blockage of a coronary artery. This blockage keeps blood and oxygen from getting to the heart.
This blockage happens because of a problem called atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. This is a process where fatty deposits called plaque
build up inside arteries. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry
oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. When atherosclerosis happens in the coronary arteries, it leads to heart disease.
If the plaque breaks apart, it can cause a heart attack or unstable angina. A tear or rupture in the plaque tells the body to repair the injured artery lining, much as the body might heal a cut on the skin. A blood clot forms to seal the area. The blood clot can completely block blood flow to the heart muscle.
With a heart attack, lack of blood flow causes the heart's muscle cells to start to die. With unstable angina, the blood flow is not completely blocked by the blood clot. But a heart attack may soon follow, because
the blood clot can quickly grow and block the artery.
A stent in a coronary artery can also become blocked and cause a heart attack. The stent might become narrow again if scar tissue grows after the stent is placed. And a blood clot could get stuck in the stent and block blood flow to the heart.
Heart attack triggers
In most cases, there are no
clear reasons why heart attacks occur when they do. But sometimes your body
releases adrenaline and other hormones into the bloodstream in response to
intense emotions such as anger, fear, and the "fight or flight" impulse. Heavy
physical exercise, emotional stress, lack of sleep, and overeating can also
trigger this response. Adrenaline increases blood pressure and heart rate and
can cause coronary arteries to constrict, which may cause an unstable plaque to
In rare cases, the coronary artery spasms and contracts,
obstructing blood flow and causing chest pain. If severe, the spasm can
completely block blood flow and cause a heart attack. Most of the time in these
cases, atherosclerosis is also involved, although sometimes the arteries are
clear. Cocaine, cold weather, emotional stress, and other things can cause
these spasms. But in many other cases, it is not known what triggers the
Another rare cause of heart attack can be a sudden tear in the coronary artery , or spontaneous coronary artery dissection. In this case, the coronary artery tears without a known cause.