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Heart attack signs you should not ignore

February 17, 2010 14:47 IST

Did you know that taking an aspirin when you suffer a heart attack may save your life, or that the symptoms differ significantly for men and women? Read on to learn all about recognising a heart attack and what you can do by way of prevention and treatment.

The number of people suffering from heart disease and stroke is steadily on the rise. Millions around the world suffer heart attacks each year and many of these cases are fatal. As we age and our bodies change, the heart weakens and the possibility of an attack increases significantly. But for many patients, simply knowing that they are having a heart attack can save their lives.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction (MI) or acute myocardial infarction (AMI), is the popular term for a sudden pain in the chest, accompanied by breathing difficulty arising from certain heart conditions.

The heart is a muscle like any other in the body, which needs oxygen to allow it to work. The arteries (called coronary arteries) that supply blood to the heart muscle may get blocked, which prevents enough oxygen from getting to the heart. This interruption in the blood supply to the heart leads to an attack and causes damage (the heart muscle dies or becomes permanently damaged). The more time that passes without treatment to restore the blood flow, the greater the damage.

The phrase 'heart attack' is sometimes used incorrectly to describe sudden cardiac arrest, which may or may not be the result of acute myocardial infarction. A heart attack is different from, but can be the cause of cardiac arrest (stopping of the heartbeat) and cardiac arrhythmia (an abnormal heartbeat). Sudden cardiac arrest may occur when an electrical disturbance in the heart disrupts its pumping action and causes blood to stop flowing to the rest of the body.

What are the risk factors that increase chances of a heart attack?

The following conditions increase your chances of suffering a heart attack:

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Stress
  • Being physically inactive
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes (high blood sugar)
  • Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Having a parent with a history of coronary heart disease puts you at a higher heart attack risk, especially if your father had a heart attack before age 55 and/or mother had a heart attack before age 65.

What are the warning signs of a heart attack?

According to experts, the body is likely to send out one or more of these warning signals during a heart attack:

  • Chest discomfort: Most heart attacks involve uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body: This includes sudden weakness in your arm/s, shoulder/s, neck, jaw or back. Pain may range from mild to intense.
  • Shortness of breath: Gasping or shortness of breath that gets worse when lying flat. It often comes after chest discomfort, but it can also occur before chest discomfort.
  • Anxiety: You may feel a sense of imminent doom or have a panic attack for no apparent reason. You may also suffer loss of speech, have trouble talking or understanding speech and experience blurring or loss of vision.
  • Light-headedness: You may feel dizzy or like you're about to pass out.
  • Sweating: You may suddenly break into a cold sweat.
  • Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, indigestion or unusual/unexplained fatigue.

It must be noted, however, that the symptoms of a heart attack vary. Not all people experience the same symptoms or experience them to the same extent when they have a heart attack. Some people have no symptoms at all, a condition called a silent heart attack. A silent heart attack is more common in women, people over the age of 75 or people with diabetes.

Many people who experience a heart attack have warning signs and symptoms hours, days or even weeks in advance. Recurrent chest pain (angina) triggered by exertion is the earliest warning of a heart attack caused by a temporary decrease in blood flow to the heart. It may manifest as heartburn-like symptoms which can easily be ignored or mistaken for indigestion.

Women often experience different heart attack symptoms than men, but cardiologists don't yet know why the difference occurs. Women are more likely to experience symptoms like unusual fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, indigestion and anxiety. Most doctors, however, continue to consider chest pain as the most important heart attack symptom in both women and men. Women are also less likely than men to believe that they are having a heart attack. As a result, they are more likely to delay seeking medical attention.

What should I do if I'm having a heart attack?

A heart attack is a medical emergency which demands immediate attention. Call your local emergency number for an ambulance to take you to the hospital right away. If you don't have access to emergency medical services, have someone drive you to the nearest hospital. While you are waiting for help to arrive, you can take an aspirin, as it reduces the damage to your heart by making your blood less likely to clot. However, aspirin can interact with other medications, so don't take an aspirin unless emergency medical personnel or your doctor recommend it. You can also take nitroglycerin if your doctor has prescribed it.

Reading these signs is very crucial. When having a heart attack, every minute counts. If you are facing any of these symptoms, it is important to get to hospital fast. Many people who act quickly and get to the hospital in time recover and return to living a normal life.


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