When and why do heart attacks occur? Cardiovascular triggers and their potential role

Hosp Pract (1995). 2010;38(3):144-52. doi: 10.3810/hp.2010.06.308.


Coronary heart disease affects 7.6% of the population in the United States, where > 900,000 myocardial infarctions (MIs) occur annually. Approximately half of all MIs have an identifiable clinical trigger. Myocardial ischemia, MI, sudden cardiac death, and thrombotic stroke each occur with circadian variation and peak after waking in the morning. In addition, physical exertion and mental stress are common precipitants of MI. Waking in the morning, physical exertion, and mental stress influence a number of physiologic parameters, including blood pressure, heart rate, plasma epinephrine levels, coronary blood flow, platelet aggregability, and endothelial function. Upregulation of sympathetic output and catecholamines increase myocardial oxygen demand and can decrease myocardial oxygen supply and promote thrombosis. Ischemia ensues when myocardial oxygen demand exceeds supply. Increases in blood pressure and ventricular contractility increase intravascular shear stress and may cause vulnerable atherosclerotic plaques to rupture, forming a nidus for thrombosis that can precipitate MI. Numerous clinical triggers of MI have been identified, including blizzards, the Christmas and New Year's holidays, experiencing an earthquake, the threat of violence, job strain, Mondays for the working population, sexual activity, overeating, smoking cigarettes, smoking marijuana, using cocaine, and particulate air pollution. Avoiding clinical triggers or participating in therapies that prevent clinical triggers from precipitating cardiac events could potentially postpone clinical events by several years and improve cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. Direct or indirect evidence suggests that the risk of triggered MIs is reduced with β-blockers, aspirin, statins, stress management, and transcendental meditation.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollution / adverse effects
  • Blood Pressure
  • Cardiovascular Agents / therapeutic use
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / complications
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology
  • Catecholamines / biosynthesis
  • Circadian Clocks
  • Heart / physiopathology*
  • Hemodynamics
  • Holidays
  • Humans
  • Myocardial Infarction / epidemiology
  • Myocardial Infarction / etiology*
  • Myocardial Infarction / prevention & control
  • Physical Exertion / physiology
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology


  • Cardiovascular Agents
  • Catecholamines