The heart is a delicate thing for us. Emotionally, it is our soul and passion. Physically, it is the powerhouse that keeps us going. In both senses, it is vitally important. That’s why it’s dangerous when things go wrong.
In America, almost 800,000 people have a heart attack each year, with one happening about every 40 seconds. A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, is when blood flow carrying oxygen to the heart is blocked or reduced causing damage to it. This can be from plaque build-up in the arteries that eventually break off and create a clot, though there can be many other possible causes. A heart attack can be a serious complication of coronary heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. Luckily, modern treatment of heart attacks has promising success rates of survival but like all medical emergencies, heart attacks require a prompt response and immediate treatment time. Every minute that passes could mean continual damage to the organ. For that reason, it’s important to recognize the signs of a heart attack.
We’ve seen it on TV – a man clutching his heart and gasping before collapsing to the floor. Hollywood has made it recognizable with its dramatization but, not all heart attacks look like that. Familiarity with symptoms is important for seeking assistance if you suspect you or someone else is experiencing a heart attack.
- General unwell feeling and mild discomfort
- Dull, squeezing, pressure, heaviness, or crushing chest pain
- A feeling of dizziness, light-headed, nausea, vomiting
- Fullness, squeezing, discomfort; like indigestion or heartburn
- Pain that radiates to the shoulders, arm, neck, jaw, back, or stomach
- Shortness of breath
- Clamminess, sweating, paleness
- Racing or uneven heartbeat
- Severe anxiety, fatigue, and weakness
Every person’s heart attack may present itself differently. Interestingly, chest pain – the main symptom tied with heart attacks – is not always present. Heart attacks without noticeable symptoms are called silent heart attacks or silent ischemia and may be more common in those with diabetes and women. It is estimated about 1 in 5 heart attacks are considered a silent heart attack. These can be just as damaging as the ones with gripping pain but the person may not know until weeks or months later.
Less than half of men and only about 30% of women have reported chest pain with their heart attack, and it’s possible that the younger the woman is the less likely she is to have chest pain during a heart attack. Other, less obvious, symptoms may be present for women including shortness of breath, abnormal heartbeat, indigestion, and nausea. Back pain, weakness, and unusual fatigue may also be present. Women are more likely to experience complications from a heart attack, possibly because these symptoms seem less severe, making them less likely to seek immediate treatment or be diagnosed quickly. Differences between male and female symptoms, however, may diminish as they get older. Anyone who suspects a silent heart attack, should advocate for themselves – people know themselves best, and if something feels wrong, they should be checked.
Prevention is a key component to staying heart-healthy and stave away heart attacks. It’s never too early or too late to start incorporating healthy lifestyle habits like eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. Lifestyle changes can be easier with others, so make it a family or group effort!