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Heart Attack and Unstable Angina - Cause

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 camera.gif 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 rupture.

Rare causes

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 spasm.

Another rare cause of heart attack can be a sudden tear in the coronary artery camera.gif, or spontaneous coronary artery dissection. In this case, the coronary artery tears without a known cause.

    This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

    WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

    Last Updated: March 12, 2014
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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