How is a heart attack diagnosed?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

A heart attack is diagnosed based on symptoms, diagnostic tests, and family history. When a person arrives at the hospital with symptoms of a heart attack, the medical staff begins by checking temperature, blood pressure, and pulse. A doctor will test the electrical activity of the heart using an electrocardiogram (EKG). Blood tests are also used to diagnose a heart attack.

When a cell from the heart dies, the cell bursts, releasing specific proteins into the bloodstream. Higher concentration of these proteins indicates a heart attack has occurred or is continuing, so doctors can test for those proteins to diagnose. Coronary angiography uses an X-ray of the heart and blood vessels to identify the location of the blocked artery. An echocardiogram produces images of the beating heart that allows the medical team to determine if the heart is beating normally. During a nuclear scan, radioactive material is injected into the body to identify areas of reduced blood flow to the heart.

A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood through a coronary artery is severely limited or completely blocked. Tests to diagnose a heart attack include electrocardiography (EKG), stress tests, echocardiography, cardiac MRI and nuclear imaging.

Let's start with what a heart attack is: It is a lack of blood flow to the heart muscle. There are usually three things that doctors look at to diagnose a heart attack, and at least two of the three need to be present to consider you may be having a heart attack. These include chest pain, specific changes on your electrocardiogram, which looks at the electrical system in your heart, and an elevation in specific chemical blood markers that are released from your heart when it is being damaged. Not every heart attack is the same, and it is very important that you seek medical attention if you are experiencing chest pain.

Dr. Samin K. Sharma, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

A heart attack is diagnosed after the patient experiences symptoms of chest pressure, pain, difficulty breathing and suffocation. Once the patient arrives at the hospital, his or her healthcare team will confirm the diagnosis through various diagnostic tests, which will include cardiac enzyme studies and an electroencephalogram (EKG).

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

You were rushed to the emergency room, certain you were having a heart attack—but how can you be sure?

Your doctor will diagnose a heart attack by looking at your medical history, giving you a physical exam and using an electrocardiogram (EKG) to look for any abnormalities caused by damage to the heart. He or she will also use a blood test that measures the levels of certain enzymes in the bloodstream to confirm the diagnosis of a heart attack.

A heart attack is diagnosed at the very basic level with electrocardiography (EKG). A primary care doctor can do that in their office and, obviously, cardiologists do that in their offices, as well. An EKG in the midst of symptoms can instantly tell if someone is having a heart attack or if he or she is at risk for a heart attack.

Beyond just a plain EKG, a person might get referred to a cardiologist who would then perform a stress test. Stress testing basically uncovers blockages in the arteries. The person goes on a treadmill and exercises, sometimes coupled with imaging of the heart. Doctors may also do an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart that shows how the heart is pumping, how the valves are working and how the heart is functioning, in general. So, doctors definitely have a lot of tests in their arsenal, but at the very basic level, an EKG should be done if a person is complaining of the symptoms.

Trinity Health is a Catholic health care organization that acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition and does not condone or support all practices covered in this site. In case of emergency call 911. This site is educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice, always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.