Any heart attack has the potential to be fatal, but some types are more lethal than others. The widowmaker heart attack is extremely dangerous, sometimes becoming fatal in a matter of minutes. Though this type is treatable if caught quickly, and many people recover, some may experience lingering effects.

Widowmaker Specifics

Heart attacks occur when blood flow diminishes or completely stops to a part of the heart, damaging the muscle. A widowmaker heart attack occurs specifically when the left anterior descending (LAD) artery is entirely blocked at its origin. This artery delivers a significant amount of blood to the heart, so it is a particularly dangerous location to develop a blockage. Despite its potential severity, it is difficult to identify a widowmaker heart attack from symptoms alone.

illustration of the heart showing LAD artery


Signs and Symptoms

Widowmaker heart attack symptoms are essentially the same as those of other heart attacks. General signs include

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Pain radiating into the limbs, neck, or jaw
  • Muscle pain in chest or neck
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness or disorientation
  • Anxiety or panic
  • Sweating
  • Palpitations

Women may have more subtle symptoms, such as nausea, lightheadedness, and neck or jaw pain.

man clutching his chest, heart attack concept



A variety of issues can cause a blockage of the LAD artery. Most commonly, cholesterol builds up along the artery walls and obstructs the blood vessel. This is a condition called atherosclerosis, which many people refer to as a “hardening of the arteries.” In some cases, the plaque bursts, leading to a blood clot that completely stops blood flow.

digital illustration of atherosclerosis or hardened arteries


The Name and Severity

The name “widowmaker” stems from the extreme mortality of this type of heart attack. Survival time for a widowmaker heart attack ranges from mere minutes to several hours. While the heart attack itself is not immediately lethal, it often induces deadly cardiac arrest. Nausea, shortness of breath, and pain throughout the chest and head are the earliest symptoms.

older man experiencing chest pain, heart attack symptom


What To Do in an Emergency

Widowmaker heart attacks are incredibly lethal and need near immediate medical attention. If a person believes they are having a heart attack, immediately call emergency services. Driving to the emergency room may save money, but it delays potentially life-saving treatment. Paramedics can begin diagnostics and treatment on the way to the hospital, while also informing the waiting physicians of what is happening. This can dramatically improve a person’s chances of survival.

emergency medical person caring for someone in ambulance



If a person has a complete LAD blockage, a doctor will perform an angioplasty by inserting a catheter through a small incision in the leg or groin. The doctor directs this catheter through the LAD and uses it to inflate a small balloon that widens the artery. In many cases, the operation will include inserting a stent to help keep the artery open long-term. Depending on the recovery process, physicians may recommend other procedures.

angioplasty digital illustration of balloon and stent in artery



After an angioplasty, it usually takes at least a day in the hospital to recover. More invasive heart procedures require longer stays. Once the patient returns home, they’ll need to avoid exercise or heavy lifting for several weeks. They should also take any pain medications or blood thinners that their physician prescribes. Some individuals may need to attend rehabilitation programs.

doctor hanging patient prescription medication


Risk Factors

Certain genetic factors and lifestyle circumstances dramatically increase a person’s risk of having a widowmaker heart attack. Some of these risk factors are:

  • Smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco
  • Being clinically overweight or obese
  • A diet rich in sodium, unhealthy fats, and processed grains
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes or prediabetes
  • Lack of exercise

People with conditions like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or dyslipidemia are also more likely to have widowmaker heart attacks.

cropped image of a person holding a smoking cigarette



Each person can take certain actions to prevent widowmaker and other heart attacks. Many people who have prescriptions for cardiac medications do not take them, increasing their risk of heart attacks. Preventing heart attacks can be as simple as taking prescribed medications.

Being as physically active as possible can also significantly improve heart health. Lowering alcohol intake, losing weight, and following a healthier diet are other steps one can take to reduce the chances of cardiac issues.

person taking their medications from a daily dispenser



Survival rates of heart attacks have increased in recent years, hovering around 90%. After treatment, the heart can recover from serious heart attacks, even widowmakers. This is particularly true for patients who received immediate medical attention. In some cases, the heart heals by forming scar tissue, which cannot pump as well as healthy tissue. Scar tissue may cause other cardiac issues later in life.

older woman with home care doctor recovering


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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.