Find Information About:

Drugs & Supplements

Get information and reviews on prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements. Search by name or medical condition.

Pill Identifier

Pill Identifier

Having trouble identifying your pills?

Enter the shape, color, or imprint of your prescription or OTC drug. Our pill identification tool will display pictures that you can compare to your pill.

Get Started

My Medicine

Save your medicine, check interactions, sign up for FDA alerts, create family profiles and more.

Get Started

WebMD Health Experts and Community

Talk to health experts and other people like you in WebMD's Communities. It's a safe forum where you can create or participate in support groups and discussions about health topics that interest you.

  • Second Opinion

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community


    Connect with people like you, and get expert guidance on living a healthy life.

Got a health question? Get answers provided by leading organizations, doctors, and experts.

Get Answers

Sign up to receive WebMD's award-winning content delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up

Heart Disease Health Center

Font Size

Understanding Heart Attack: The Basics

Angina: Early Warning Sign of a Heart Attack continued...

Recovery is always a delicate process, because any heart attack weakens the heart to some degree. But generally, a normal life can be resumed. Depending on the severity of a heart attack, a person may experience:

  • Heart failure, where the heart doesn't pump well enough to meet the body's needs
  • Arrhythmias or abnormal heart rhythms
  • Cardiac arrest or sudden cardiac death, where the heart stops beating
  • Cardiogenic shock, where the heart is so damaged from the heart attack that a person goes into shock, which may result in damage of other vital organs like the kidneys or liver
  • Death

What Causes a Heart Attack?

Most heart attacks are the result of coronary artery disease, also known as atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries," a condition that clogs coronary arteries with fatty, calcified plaques over time. The typical trigger for a heart attack is often a blood clot that blocks the flow of blood through a coronary artery.

In the early 1980s, researchers confirmed that the trigger for nearly all heart attacks is not the obstructive plaque itself, but the sudden formation of a blood clot -- like a scab -- on top of plaque that cuts off blood flow in an already narrowed vessel. This is called "plaque rupture." Contrary to prior belief, doctors now recognize that the less severe plaques are the cause of most heart attacks: It's the milder blockages that rupture and then cause the blood clot to form.

Heart attacks may also be caused by coronary artery spasm, where a heart artery is temporarily constricted, although this is a fairly rare cause.

New research shows that inflammation also plays a role in the evolution of heart attacks. It appears that the coronary artery walls become inflamed over time, further increasing the buildup of fatty plaques.

While the step-by-step process leading to a heart attack is not fully understood, major risk factors for coronary artery disease are well-known. Some can be controlled, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle. Stress is also said to raise the risk, and exertion and excitement can act as triggers for a heart attack.

Other risk factors include having diabetes and having a family history of heart disease.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on February 28, 2015
1 | 2

Today on WebMD

x-ray of human heart
A visual guide.
atrial fibrillation
Symptoms and causes.
heart rate graph
10 things to never do.
heart rate
Get the facts.
empty football helmet
red wine
eating blueberries
Simple Steps to Lower Cholesterol
Inside A Heart Attack
Omega 3 Sources
Salt Shockers
lowering blood pressure