There are few things more frightening than thinking that you might be having a heart attack. If you know the danger signs you’ll be able to take the appropriate actions.
What is a Heart Attack?
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) defines a heart attack as occurring when “the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a section of heart muscle suddenly becomes blocked, and the heart can’t get oxygen.” When this occurs, the heart’s blood supply must be restored quickly to prevent that section of the heart muscle from dying.
Coronary Artery Disease
The most common cause of heart attacks is coronary artery disease (CAD) or coronary heart disease, as it is sometimes known. Similarly, a heart attack can also be the first sign of coronary artery disease.
The cause of coronary artery disease is a buildup in the artery walls of a plaque that causes the coronary arteries to narrow over time, restricting or blocking the flow of blood to the heart. The buildup usually occurs over several years.
An attack can also be caused by a plaque rupture, causing a blood clot that restricts or creates a blockage to the heart’s blood flow and can increase the chances of heart muscle damage.
Heart Attack Symptoms
Heart attack signs can include several different symptoms and can vary between patients. For example, if you have diabetes, you may experience few or no symptoms.
While some types of heart attacks may begin suddenly and be quite severe and with immediate pain, most build up over a short period with an experience of mild pain or chest pressure. Here are some common signs that you are having heart distress and need immediate attention:
- Chest Pain. The most common heart attack symptom–at least for men–is chest pain. The discomfort either lasts a few minutes or comes and goes and will often be noticeable by a feeling of uncomfortable chest pressure or a squeezing sensation in your chest.
- Upper Body Discomfort. In addition to chest pain, you may experience discomfort in other parts of your upper body. This may include sharp pain in one or both of your arms, although more commonly in your left arm. Additionally, there may be discomfort felt in your neck or shoulders, as well as your jaw. This type of discomfort often occurs in women.
- Shortness of breath. Another common symptom is shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. This can occur either when you’re resting or after a short bout of exercise. This is not necessarily a sign of heart issues on its own. But if you are experiencing this symptom along with a tightness in your chest, pain in your upper abdomen, and nausea or vomiting, you might be having a heart attack.
- Other signs. You may also experience sweating, bouts of lightheadedness or dizziness, nausea, feelings of anxiety, and coughing and wheezing episodes.
Symptoms Vary Between Men and Women
According to the American Heart Association, chest pain and discomfort are common symptoms of heart attacks in both men and women. However, symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and back or jaw pain are increasingly common among women.
There are several risk factors for a heart attack. These include causes that can be controlled by you and others that cannot. Risk factors that you cannot control are your age or a family history of heart disease and related issues.
If you are over 65, you are more likely to suffer a heart attack. Reasons for this can include plaque buildup and a hardening or stiffening of the coronary arteries causing your heart not to beat as efficiently as it once did.
One of the most significant aspects within your control that helps prevent heart-related issues is your lifestyle. Smoking, high blood cholesterol levels, and high blood pressure are all considered key risk factors. Around 50% of all Americans suffer from at least one of these factors. Also, a lack of exercise or physical activity has been considered a contributing factor.
Quitting smoking, lowering your cholesterol, and exercising regularly can help maintain a healthy heart, prevent heart attacks, and lower your risk of heart disease. Adopting a healthier lifestyle, such as a lower fat and sodium diet and maintaining a healthy weight, can also reduce heart disease risk.
The Importance of Immediate Action
If you suspect that you might be having a heart attack, it is essential not to ignore it as it may lead to permanent damage. Call for immediate emergency medical care, even if you’re not sure if it’s a heart attack. The doctors and health care personnel might advise taking aspirin to prevent further clotting until the ambulance arrives. However, the priority is always to call the emergency services before taking aspirin or any other medications.
Every minute counts. If you have a heart attack, the doctors and emergency medical staff will need to give you the correct treatment and diagnosis as soon as possible, so never delay dealing with any type of heart symptoms. It can help the doctors limit any heart damage and save your life.