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Signs of a Heart Attack Overview

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs, in most cases, when a vessel supplying the heart muscle with blood and oxygen becomes completely blocked. The vessel has become narrowed by a slow buildup of fatty deposits, made mostly of cholesterol. When a clot occurs in this narrowed vessel, it completely blocks the supply of blood to the heart muscle. That part of the muscle will begin to die if the individual does not immediately seek medical attention.

Heart Attack Warning Signs

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. Each year, approximately 1.2 million Americans suffer a heart attack, and nearly one-third of these individuals die, many before they reach the hospital. People often dismiss heart attack warning signs, such as chest pain, and think they merely have heartburn or a pulled muscle. The unfortunate conclusion is that many people wait too long before getting help. We want you to recognize the early symptoms of a heart attack.

Frequent signs of a heart attack are the following:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest. The discomfort lasts for more than a few minutes or it may go away and come back. The discomfort may feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. This may include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath may occur with or before chest discomfort
  • Other symptoms may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness. Treatments are most effective when they occur in the early stages of chest pain.

Heart attacks are often viewed as a man's problem when, in fact, more women in the United States die of heart disease each year than men. Women often experience signs and symptoms that are different from those that men experience. This is because smaller arteries may be blocked in women whereas men often have blockage in the main arteries.

Heart attack signs in women sometimes go unnoticed. They include the following:

  • Pressure, fullness, squeezing pain in the center of the chest, spreading to the neck, shoulder or jaw
  • Light-headedness, fainting, sweating, nausea, or shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
  • Upper abdominal pressure or discomfort
  • Lower chest discomfort
  • Back pain
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Unusual shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

Don't delay! Don't take chances! If you have chest pain or other heart attack symptoms, call 911 and seek medical attention immediately.

Time Is Muscle; Time Wasted Is Muscle Lost

This is a familiar slogan to nurses and physicians working in the emergency department (ED) when a patient enters with chest pain indicating that a heart attack is in progress. Loss of time is equated to loss of heart muscle, resulting in less life enjoyment that depends on physical activity. The cause of the heart attack is usually a complete blockage of one of the heart vessels; complete destruction of the muscle being supplied by that vessel occurs over a six-hour period of time.

It is important to note that 85% of muscle damage takes place within the first hour. This is often referred to as the "golden hour." It is within this timeframe that the heart vessel needs to be opened. If time is lost and the vessel is opened after this timeframe, the benefit is much less. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that action be taken early. Thus the term, "Time is Muscle." This is a truly an emergency.

The best way to stop the heart attack process is to detect the symptoms early, before damage to the heart muscle occurs. When considering whether or not to go to the hospital with chest discomfort, or chest pain, it is better to be safe than to be sorry. The heart muscle must be saved, and time is of the essence.

It is critical for those who experience any chest discomfort or pain to quickly get to the emergency department to be evaluated. Everyone should develop a contingency plan whenever chest discomfort or pain occurs. It's not the heart attack itself that kills; it is also the time wasted when one is trying to decide whether or not to go to the hospital.

Why Call 911?

More than 50 percent of all patients experiencing chest pain walk into the ED rather than calling 911. The reasons for this are numerous, ranging from the instinct to just jumping in the car and driving to the nearest hospital to the misunderstanding that theemergency squad is just a transport vehicle. The fact remains: calling 911 starts treatment earlier.

  • 911 dispatchers are often trained to locate you quickly and assist you in early treatment options.
  • In Wake County and surrounding areas, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) can diagnosis a heart attack by using an electrocardiogram (ECG) and also initiate early treatment.
  • Arriving by ambulance to the ED helps to ensure that you will not wait to be seen by a physician. Many patients who experience chest pain drive themselves, only to find that they may wait in the ED lobby until they can see the doctor.
  • EMS can radio ahead to the ED that you are on your way. This enables the ED staff to be ready for you when you arrive through their doors.

Preventing A Heart Attack—Major Risk Factors

Perhaps the only thing more important than early recognition is prevention. The following risk factors have been linked to a higher incidence of heart attack and should be addressed and eliminated. If you, or someone you care about, struggles with any of these risks, talk to your doctor about ways to remove these behaviors before they have a chance to impact your health.

Smoking

Most cases of heart disease are caused by a condition known as atherosclerosis or coronary artery disease (CAD), sometimes known as "hardening of the arteries." Because arteries are responsible for supplying blood to the heart, anything that causes these pathways to narrow or close can lead to a heart attack by stopping the blood supply. The nicotine found in cigarettes destroys the cells that line the coronary arteries, elevate blood pressure, resulting in additional stress being placed on the heart, and increase the rate at which atherosclerosis occurs.

Lack of Exercise

Aerobic exercise, or exercise that increases your heart rate, helps improve the heart's ability to pump making it a stronger "cardiovascular" machine, enabling it to supply oxygen more efficiently to the rest of the body.

Obesity

People who have excess body fat especially if a lot of it is at the waist are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke even if they have no other risk factors. Excess weight increases the heart's work. It also raises blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and triglyceride levels while it lowers HDL ("good") cholesterol levels. Obesity can also make diabetes more likely to develop. Many obese and overweight people have difficulty losing weight, but losing even as few as ten pounds can lower the risk for heart disease.

Elevated Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance made in the liver and is also found in certain foods made from animals (e.g., meat, dairy, eggs). Although a certain amount of cholesterol is necessary for certain bodily functions to occur, an overabundance can have detrimental effects. A blood test can determine whether or not cholesterol is under control and, if not, changes in diet and/or medication may be in order.

Stress

It is impossible to eliminate all stress in life, but there are certain ways to reduce its effects on the heart. Yoga, breathing exercises, and walking are just a few ways to help calm the body's harmful reaction to stressful situations. Try to achieve balance in your life. If your job is stressful, strive to find a way to take periodic breaks from the daily grind. Stress can be cumulative and can ultimately lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and other physical side effects.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure increases the risk of coronary artery disease (CAD), which is essentially a buildup of fatty matter known as "plaque" that, over time, leads to narrowing of these pathways. This narrowing results in a limitation or complete blockage of the artery. People with high blood pressure are more likely to develop CAD due to the extra pressure placed on the walls of the arteries. Over time, the arteries can become damaged, narrowed, and hardened by these fatty deposits.

Diabetes

Diabetics are at much greater risk of a heart attack than those without the disease. High levels of sugar in the blood system of the diabetic can narrow the coronary arteries that supply oxygenated blood to the heart. Because of this, it is important for diabetics to keep their condition under control and maintain a healthy weight.