What exactly happens during a heart attack?

It sure looks like she's having a heart attack. But what's going on here besides chest pain? See more heart health pictures.
It sure looks like she’s having a heart attack. But what’s going on here besides chest pain? See more heart health pictures.
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

It’s Monday morning. The traffic is thick. An overturned tractor-trailer is sprawled across four lanes of the h­ighway, and you’re late for your annual performance review with your boss. Great.

As the seconds tick by, the tightness in your chest grows, along with the line of cars getting off at your exit. You jam the window down and gulp in some fresh air, trying to breathe deeply. You feel anxious, light-headed. Is there a giant panda sitting on your chest?


You are having a heart attack.

Let’s pause right there. Instead of lecturing you about heart health in this article, we’re going to take you inside the body and tell you what happens during a heart attack.

What’s happening inside your heart right now isn’t so different from the craziness on the roads. You know that overturned tractor-trailer? You have one of your own parked in your coronary arteries, the same highways that wrap around your heart like a crown and supply blood to the different parts of the heart muscle. Only instead of a tractor-trailer, it’s a piece of plaque, a buildup of cholesterol and fatty material, lodged inside your coronary artery.

A narrow lane of traffic (or blood) may have been squeezing by this obstruction for years, but now a road crew in the form of platelets has arrived to fix a pothole on the plaque. With these disk-shaped bodies in the way trying to clot, no blood can move past at all. Blood is backing up and peeling out in all directions trying to find alternate routes, and heart muscle may soon be dying on the other side of the accident scene. The longer it takes you to get to the hospital and get treatment, the more damage will occur.

What a mess, huh? Is the rest of your body helping out? Or are all those organs and tissues acting like morbid onlookers at an accident scene?


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