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Heart Attack Signs: How To Tell If You Might Be Having A Heart Attack

And What To Do About It

By

Updated March 30, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The Key To Surviving A Heart Attack

The key to surviving a heart attack is to recognize that you might be having one, then getting medical help as rapidly as possible.

An acute heart attack (also called a myocardial infarction, or MI),is caused by the sudden blockage of a coronary artery, which causes at least some of the heart muscle supplied by that artery to die. Because many of the short-term and long-term consequences of an MI are determined by how much heart muscle is damaged, once the artery becomes blocked (that is, once an MI begins), it is critical to receive medical care immediately.

What this means, of course, is that if you are having a heart attack, trying to ride it out at home for a while - hoping the symptoms will turn out to be indigestion or a muscle strain - can produce a delay that may cause devastating and permanent consequences.

Anyone who has coronary artery disease (CAD), or who (by virtue of their cardiac risk factors) might have CAD, should know what symptoms to look for.

What Heart Attack Symptoms Should Tip You Off?

The classic symptom of an MI is an intense, sometimes squeezing, pressure or pain in or around the chest, often radiating to the jaw or left arm, and sometimes accompanied by profuse sweating, or a nearly overwhelming sense of fear or impending doom.

Unfortunately, you can't count on having this classic pattern. Sometimes the discomfort may be relatively mild, and may be felt in the back, abdomen, shoulders, or either or both arms. Unexplained sudden shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, or merely a feeling of heartburn, may be the only symptoms. These "atypical" symptoms may not make you think of a heart problem, and may keep you from seeking medical help. Women appear to experience "atypical" symptoms more often than men.

This is why anyone with one or more risk factors for CAD needs to pay close attention to any sudden, unusual or unexplained symptoms involving the upper half of the body. This warning would apply, for instance, to any middle-aged or older person who is overweight, relatively sedentary, a smoker, or who has diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or a family history of heart disease. For such people (and there are a lot of us), any unexplained symptoms that even might be due to a heart problem should be regarded very seriously.

What Should You Do If You Think You Might Be Having A Heart Attack?

If you experience any symptoms suggestive of heart attack, especially if you know you have risk factors for CAD, you should get medical help as soon as possible. Generally, the safest thing to do is to call 911 and have the paramedics come to you. Once you are in the care of paramedics, your risk of dying from a cardiac arrest is greatly diminished.

If you live in an area where paramedics are not readily available, then have someone drive you to a hospital. But whatever you do, get help right away, because if you are having a heart attack, every minute is vitally important. And while you're waiting for the paramedics, or while being driven to the hospital, take an aspirin.

What Should Happen At the Hospital?

When you arrive at the hospital, the medical personnel should take your symptoms very seriously. This is not one of those times when you should expect to sit around in the emergency department for two hours, waiting for a sullen, gum-snapping clerk to take your insurance information. Instead, you should expect to be immediately placed into a treatment room, and several individuals should simultaneously hook you up to a cardiac monitor, start an I.V., give you some oxygen, get an electrocardiogram (ECG), draw some blood to test, and begin asking you questions about your symptoms and examining your heart.

To make sure you elicit the correct response from medical personnel, you've got to say the magic words as soon as you arrive. The magic words are, "I think I'm having a heart attack."

Don't tell them you're here because your shoulder hurts, or you think you have heartburn, or that you have any of the other alternate possibilities you've imagined (and hoped) for yourself. Your attitude should not be, "It's probably nothing, so I won't make a big deal. Let them figure out if it's my heart." If that's your approach, you'll get the sullen, gum-snapping treatment, precious minutes (or even hours) will be wasted, and you'll pay a heavy price.

Once you have recognized the symptoms of a possible heart attack, gotten yourself to a hospital, and alerted the medical personnel that you may have a heart problem, you've done your job.

The next step is up to the doctors. And it's important for you to know, in general terms, what the doctors ought to be doing for you when are having an acute heart attack. You can read more about that here:

Sources:

Ornato, JP. Chest pain emergency centers: improving acute myocardial infarction care. Clin Cardiol 1999; 22:IV3.

Svavarsdottir, AE, Jonasson, MR, Gudmundsson, GH, Fjeldsted, K. Chest pain in family practice. Diagnosis and long-term outcome in a community setting. Can Fam Physician 1996; 42:1122.

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