If you believe you are experiencing the signs of a heart attack, it is imperative that you call 911 and get the medical attention you require immediately.
Heart attacks occur when one or more of your coronary arteries become blocked. Blockage of the arteries can happen suddenly leading to an acute heart attack or gradually causing various symptoms referred to as angina. When coronary arteries are blocked, the heart muscle can no longer receive adequate oxygen-rich blood and cardiac function can become impaired. To avoid irreversible damage to the heart, prompt recognition of heart attack symptoms is crucial to allow for timely treatment.
Here are the most common heart attack symptoms you should be aware of:
1. Chest Pain
Chest pain is the most common sign of a heart attack. While the feeling and location of heart attack related chest pain are difficult to pinpoint, they are typically described as the sensation of severe pressure in the area behind the breastbone. Some describe the symptom as if a very heavy object is placed on their chest (“an elephant on the chest”). In many cases, the pain can travel to the neck, jaw and arms (more commonly the left arm). It is crucial to remember that although central chest pressure is typical, atypical locations of discomfort (i.e. the back, stomach or shoulders) can also occur and these symptoms should not be ignored. Atypical presentations tend to be more common in women.
2. Shortness of Breath
During a heart attack, the pump function of your heart may be impaired leading to shortness of breath. With impaired heart pump function, there is back pressure transmitted to the lungs leading to labored breathing. As a result, activities that are normally routine such as walking down the block or climbing a flight of stairs may be associated with heavier breathing than usual. In extreme cases, shortness of breath may be noted with speaking or sitting quietly at rest.
When heart muscle is not receiving adequate blood flow, it can become irritable. This irritability can lead to irregular heart rhythms (or arrhythmias) which can manifest as palpitations. The sensation of fluttering in the chest, extra heart beats or a racing heart can be subtle warning signs of a heart attack. Palpitations can also cause a sensation of dizziness as the irregular heart rhythm can decrease blood flow to the brain. Frequent palpitations can be an ominous warning sign and could be a precursor to impending cardiac arrest.
4. Nausea or Indigestion
A common sensation of a heart attack is the feeling of a queasy stomach, belching or vomiting. These gastric symptoms, known as a vagal response, can be triggered when the heart is not receiving appropriate blood supply. A sensation of epigastric or upper abdomen discomfort is not uncommon as well. This “stomach” discomfort is often misidentified as acid reflux or “heartburn” and can delay the diagnosis of a heart attack.
Sweating without exerting yourself may be a warning sign of a heart attack. The medical term used to refer to heart-attack related sweating is diaphoresis. During a heart attack, your sympathetic nervous system, responsible for your “fight or flight” response, is in survival mode and its over activation can lead to sweating. Often times this may manifest as a cold sweat. It is rare for diaphoresis to be the sole presenting sign of a heart attack and sweats are usually accompanied by the other symptoms discussed above.
What should I do if I am experiencing signs of a heart attack?
If you suspect that you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, be PROACTIVE and call an ambulance right away. Time is of the essence to preventing irreversible damage to the heart and prompt treatment is crucial.
Heart attacks can occur for a variety of reasons. Ideally, the best treatment for a heart attack is to PREVENT it from occurring in the first place. This may include a change in lifestyle, diet, exercise and other habits that threaten the health of your heart.
At North Suffolk Cardiology, our physicians are specialists in both prevention and treatment of heart attacks. We are here to help you and your heart live in optimal health.