A heart attack is nothing like the chest clutching, stumbling and falling down scenes depicted in countless movies or medical drama scenes on TV. In real life, heart attacks are more varied and subtle.
Approximately more than one million people in the United States experience a heart attack each year. 50% of these attacks that happen outside of a hospital turn fatal with deaths that occur within an hour of the attack.
A majority of these fatalities are people at least 65 years old and above.
However, heart attacks are becoming more frequent in young adults in recent years.
A heart attack is caused by a blockage in one or more of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. The blockage is often a build-up of fat, cholesterol and other substances. These form a plaque in the arteries that supply the heart of blood.
The plaque will eventually break away and create a clot. The clot causes an interruption in the blood flow.
Without enough blood, the heart sustains severe damage which can become fatal.
Any part of the body when deprived and starved of oxygen-rich blood can cause significant pain. The heart muscles are no different.
Heart attacks most occur in people who have been affected by coronary artery diseases for years. Recurrent chest pains (angina) or shortness of breath are often noticeable, especially during exercise.
In some, symptoms are barely there or absent altogether. They would only learn about their heart problems when they have a heart attack.
A heart attack is always a medical emergency. It is imperative that quick medical treatment should be given to a person suffering a heart attack to lessen or minimize damage and prevent death.
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol level
- Poor diet
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Physical activity
Diagnostic exams and procedures:
- EKG – Also known as electrocardiogram or ECG tells how much the heart muscle has been damaged and its location. It can also monitor heart rate and rhythm.
- Blood tests – Different levels of cardiac enzymes in the blood can indicate heart muscle damage.
- Echocardiography – This is an imaging test that can be used during and after a heart attack to learn how the heart is pumping and what areas aren’t pumping the way they should.
- Cardiac catheterization – also called cardiac cath. It gives an image of the blocked artery and helps doctors decide on a treatment.
Signs and symptoms:
Signs and symptoms of a heart attack may vary from person to person. The signs and symptoms may also differ from a previous heart attack.
Silent heart attacks are those that do not cause any symptoms.
Not all heart problems come with distinct warning signs. Some heart symptoms don’t even manifest in the chest area. There are many heart attack signs and symptoms that are often ignored or overlooked because they are not immediately thought of as connected with heart attacks.
The following are the most common signs everyone should look out for in a heart attack:
1. Chest discomfort
Discomfort or pain in the chest area is the most common sign of a heart attack.
A heart attack pain is often felt at the center of the chest. It can last for a few minutes or it may fade away only to return. The sudden discomfort or pain may happen either when at rest or during physical activity.
The pain or discomfort may feel like a tightness or pressure in the chest. The pressure can become uncomfortable that some people describe it like a heavyweight was placed on their chest. Others describe the discomfort as pinching, squeezing or a burning sensation.
In some, the discomfort may be mild and makes a person feel generally unwell.
Chest pain or discomfort can be brought about many other medical conditions. It is just one possible sign of an impending heart attack.
However, if there are one or more noticeable signs and symptoms linked to a heart attack, it is best to call 911 or any emergency service immediately.
2. Discomfort in other upper areas of the body
While chest pain is common in a heart attack, pain may also occur in other areas of the body.
The discomfort or pain often always starts from the chest and moves outward. The neck, arms, back, jaw and stomach are the areas in the upper body often affected.
Pain that radiates down the left side of the body is another hallmark symptom of a heart attack.
A general, dull ache can be felt between the shoulder blades. There could also be heaviness or pressure around one or both shoulders.
In addition, the arms may exhibit feelings of uselessness or heaviness. These can be felt in one or both arms.
People who have experienced heart attacks before describe a numbness or tingling feeling in one or both of their arms. Men may experience pain in their left arm during a heart attack; women may experience pain in either arm or between the shoulder blades. The pain may come and go and may be mild or severe
Most of the discomfort originated from the chest and spreads to the various areas in the upper body.
3. Shortness of breath
It is normal to breathe a little harder when doing moderate exercises. Feeling out of breath while doing normal everyday activities, especially if this has not been experienced recently, could be a sign of a serious heart problem.
Gasping for air or shortness of breath is a common symptom of a heart attack. It can occur before or during the chest pain part of a heart attack.
In some cases, though, it can come without any chest discomfort.
Shortness of breath is medically known as dyspnea.
This symptom can be further described as having a tight or constricted feeling in the chest. Taking a deep breath can prove to be difficult.
Breathing is closely linked to the heart pumping blood efficiently. The heart’s purpose is to pump blood that circulates to the various tissues in the body and gets oxygen from the lungs. If the heart is unable to pump blood, shortness of breath may happen.
Also, during a heart attack or heart failure, fluid may leak into the lungs. This can also possibly cause shortness of breath.
4. Nausea and vomiting
Together with breathing difficulties, nausea and vomiting are sometimes main signs that a person is about to or is having a heart attack.
Nausea is a feeling of queasiness that makes a person feel like vomiting. More women than men report experiencing this symptom.
There are times that nausea accompanying a heart attack becomes so severe that vomiting soon follows it.
It is believed that poor circulation due to a weak heart or blocked arteries is the main cause of these symptoms.
Some heart attack symptoms, like nausea and vomiting, have been observed to mimic stomach problems. People who experience these symptoms often assume that other conditions can cause them. However, if a person already has pre-existing heart disease, these symptoms should not be ignored.
5. Heartburn or indigestion
Heartburn is a discomfort or pain caused by digestive acid moving upward into the esophagus. It causes an uncomfortable burning feeling or pain in the chest that can move up to the neck and throat.
In addition, there might also be pain that can extend downwards into the abdominal area and might resemble heartburn. This may range from light to severe pressure that feels like there is a heavyweight on the abdominal area which causes the pain. The pressure felt in this area is often confused as heartburn or stomach ulcer and not a heart attack.
In some cases, people may also experience feelings similar to that of indigestion like belching and burping.
Women are more likely to report this type of symptom than men are.
Heart attacks and heartburns are sometimes nearly impossible to tell apart. One clue that could help tell if it is a heart attack is if the chest pain is accompanied by shortness of breath or sweating. If the pain persists get help immediately.
Sudden onset of sweating for no reason is a common symptom of a heart attack. This an unusual and surprising symptom that is easily missed.
Sweating profusely even when there is no fever, intense activity or hot temperature involved may be a warning of an impending heart attack. Together with the presence of other symptoms related to a heart attack like shortness of breath, nausea or chest pain, a heart attack is almost certain.
Furthermore, researchers have found out that many heart attack victims do not actually experience any chest pain. In fact, a study reports that for many who have experienced a heart attack, sudden sweating was the most obvious symptom and the one that took them to go see a doctor immediately.
Excessive sweating is caused when the heart tries to pump more blood through the clogged arteries. The body sweats more in order to keep the body temperature down during the heart’s extra effort.
Severe and unexplained fatigue may be a sign of an impending heart attack.
This symptom is more common in women than men and may begin months before a heart attack. It is also a less commonly recognized heart attack sign in women with some women thinking that some heart attack related symptoms are just an onset of the flu.
Fatigue occurs when the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body’s need. The blood is diverted to more important organs like the lungs and brain. Less vital organs and the muscles get less blood.
In addition, heart attacks can cause fatigue because of the extra stress placed on the heart. This stress is brought by the heart’s attempt to pump blood despite a blockage in the blood flow.
8. Heart palpitations
Heart palpitation is defined as feelings of fast-beating, fluttering, skipping beats or pounding heartbeats. Any sensation that makes a person aware of their heart beating is a type of palpitation.
Exercise, stress, some medication, and other medical conditions can sometimes trigger them.
Although they can feel alarming and scary, most of them are not serious and do not require any medical treatment.
However, prompt medical attention should be sought if a person has a history of heart disease and experiences palpitations that are frequent and worsens.
If the palpitations are accompanied by dizziness, chest pressure, chest pain, or fainting, they could be proof that a heart attack is occurring.
Palpitations or uneven heartbeats occur when the heart beats faster in order to make up for its lost pumping capacity.
9. Lightheadedness or dizziness
Usually, lightheadedness and dizziness are minor issues that can be resolved by lying down. However, if there are other symptoms that accompany the dizziness, it may be a sign of something more serious.
Lightheadedness or dizziness can occur with a heart attack. They are often experienced by women. Some of them report that they feel like they may faint if they try to stand up or move. This is not normal and should not be ignored.
Blood pressure drops when the heart is unable to pump the way it should. This then results in lightheadedness or dizziness.
If these persist along with chest pain for more than 15 minutes, call 911 or any local emergency number for prompt medical help.
10. Swollen legs, ankle, and feet
Swelling in the legs, feet or ankles is another sign of a possible heart problem.
The medical term for this is called edema.
Retention of fluid in the feet and legs is known as peripheral edema. Edema may appear as indentations on the legs and ankles at the end of the day, especially after wearing tight socks or hose.
The lower extremities are common areas for edema because of the effects of gravity.
Edema occurs when the heart is not functioning properly. The blood is unable to pump fast enough. As blood flow out of the heart slows, blood returning to the heart through the veins backs up, causing fluid to build up in the tissues.
Furthermore, heart failure can also make it harder for the kidneys to remove extra water and sodium from the body, which can lead to bloating.