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Is It a Heart Attack?

Author(s): Ronald L. McNeel, DrPH, Barbara Z. Tharp, MS, Gregory L. Vogt, EdD, and Nancy P. Moreno, PhD
Is It a Heart Attack?

© Alice Day.

  • Grades:
  • Length: Variable


Students compile a list of warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack, and view a video showing what happens immediately before, during and after a heart attack.

This activity is from the Scientific Decision-Making: Supplementary Activities on the Cardiovascular System, part of a teaching unit which includes the publication, Scientific Decision-making Teacher's Guide.

Teacher Background

Your class has learned about plaques that form, over time, inside the arteries. These plaques may become unstable and rupture, resulting in the formation of blood clots that can block an artery completely. Blockage of a coronary artery results in a heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI). Blockage of an artery that feeds the brain causes a stroke. A severe reduction or full stoppage of blood flow to any part of the heart for more than a few minutes deprives heart muscle cells of oxygen, causing permanent injury and death of the cells. Extensive damage and loss of heart muscle can kill or disable an individual. This is why it is so critical to recognize and treat a heart attack as quickly as possible.

Someone having a heart attack may experience one or more signs and symptoms. The most common warning sign is mild to severe chest pain or discomfort, uncomfortable pressure, or squeezing in the center or left side of the chest. However, one-third of heart attack patients report no chest pain. Another warning sign is shortness of breath, either during or before the onset of chest pain. Heart attack pain sometimes feels like indigestion or heartburn. Some individuals also experience nausea, vomiting, light-headedness and/or dizziness. Some victims break out in a cold sweat, or feel discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck or jaw. Women account for nearly half of all heart attack deaths, and are more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

The survival of a heart attack victim may depend on how quickly these signs are recognized and medical aid is rendered. If you think you or someone else may be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. It is better to be safe than sorry. The sooner treatment begins, the less damage the heart will sustain, and the greater the chances for recovery.

Objectives and Standards

Materials and Setup

Teacher Materials (See Setup)

  • Signs Introduction PowerPoint® file included with this unit

  • Copies of “Warning Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack,” page (see lesson PDF)

  • Computer and projector or interactive white board

  • Internet connection (to view the video, YouTube must be allowed in your school)

Materials per Student Team

  • Notebook paper (one sheet per student)


  1. Have the PowerPoint® slideshow, Signs Introduction, ready for viewing before class. If using the video, be sure the video links or files are open and ready to project.

  2. Conduct a discussion with the entire class. Then have students work in teams of four for the remainder of the activity.


Students should wash their hands with soap and water before and after any science activity, even if wearing gloves. Always follow all district and school laboratory safety procedures.

Procedure and Extensions

Time: One 45-minute class period (an additional class period may be required to view the three 10-minute segment videos, see lesson PDF)

  1. Show the first PowerPoint® slide (road sign indicating danger from falling rocks). Ask students, What does this picture say to you?

  2. Move to the second slide (road sign showing a sharp curve). Ask, What is the meaning of this picture?

  3. Show to the third slide (sign warning of children at play). Repeat your questions to prompt students’ discussion.

  4. Display the fourth slide and ask students, What do all of these pictures have in common? [All contain “danger” warning signs.]

  5. Ask the class, How important is it to understand the meaning of these signs? Why?

  6. Show the fifth slide (man clutching his chest in pain) and ask the class, What do you think might be happening to the person in this picture? Students should realize the man might be having a heart attack. Ask, Are there warning signs for heart attacks?

  7. Distribute a copy of “Warning Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack,” to each team. Have each team member read a portion of the material out loud. Using the reference materials, have each team create a list of at least 8 warning signs and symptoms. Possible answers include the following.

    • No warning signs or symptoms

    • Chest pain or discomfort

    • Squeezing sensation or pressure in the chest that doesn’t go away

    • Feeling of indigestion or heartburn that cannot be relieved

    • Aching in one or both arms (most commonly the left arm if only one)

    • Ache or pain in the neck, jaw, or stomach

    • Shortness of breath

    • Nausea or vomiting

    • Light-headedness or sudden dizziness

    • Cold sweat

    • Fatigue (malaise or lack of energy)

    • Sleep disorders

  8. Have each team place a star in the margin next to three signs or symptoms that surprised them. Then, lead a class discussion in which students share some of their surprises. Most commonly, students are surprised by “no signs at all,” “jaw pain,” and “back pain.”

  9. Show the Discovery Channel video, “Body Story: Episode 3, The Beast Within – Heart Attack,” (for URLs, see “Body Story: Episode 3,” left sidebar, lesson PDF).

  10.  End with a class discussion of what happened during the video, or have students conduct a “3-2-1” exercise for discussion or submission (each student notes 3 things he/she learned; 2 interesting facts; and 1 question he/she still has).

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Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

AHRQ's Ischemic Heart Disease Products Translated for High School Populations
Grant Number: 1R18HS019248