Recognize heart attack symptoms

Recognize heart attack symptoms

Jennifer Stratton, M.D., Attending physician for the Department of Emergency Medicine at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals

Most people would recognize crushing chest pain as the primary symptom of a heart attack — but other, less obvious symptoms could also signal a problem. “Chest pain, usually in the center or to the left side of the chest, is the classic symptom,” says Dr. Jennifer Stratton, Emergency Medicine Physician at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals. “That pain can also radiate to the jaw, cheek or neck — usually the front of the neck or the left shoulder or arm. But heart attacks can also produce vague pressure-like or squeezing sensations.”

Atypical heart attack warning signs in women

Some people, especially women, tend to have atypical symptoms, which may or may not be accompanied by chest pain. These symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Indigestion

Symptoms can come on suddenly, or they can be vague and sporadic. Women, especially, should pay attention to the more atypical symptoms of a heart attack. “Heart disease may seem like a man’s disease, but it’s not. In fact, 500,000 women die every year of cardiovascular disease — almost double the deaths from all types of cancer combined,” explains Dr. Stratton. “Women tend to have more unusual symptoms, and half of the women who have heart attacks die during their first one, so it’s very important that they are aware of them.”

For people who have other medical conditions like chronic indigestion, ulcers or angina (pressure in the chest), it’s important to note if symptoms are out of the ordinary, Dr. Stratton says. “If you have angina, you might typically have chest pain after you walk five blocks. If suddenly you have chest pain after only one block, it could be a concern. It could happen while you’re watching TV, or after you’ve had an argument, but if you notice any change from your typical patterns, you should call your doctor or go to the nearest emergency department right away,” she says.

Quick treatment saves lives

If you think you may be having a heart attack, the best way to avoid permanent damage, such as congestive heart failure or irregular heartbeat, is to get to a hospital for an assessment as soon as possible. “If you wait too long, heart muscle can start to die and be replaced with scar tissue,” Dr. Stratton says. “However, if treated quickly, damage is often reversible.”

If an ECG, blood test and/or coronary angiogram indicates that a heart attack has occurred, interventional treatments include:

  • Use of thrombolytics, or “clot-buster” medications to dissolve blood clots
  • Coronary catheterization, or angioplasty, which can open up blocked arteries using stents
  • Bypass surgery, which diverts blood flow completely around blocked arteries

Heart attack patients may be referred to the closest interventional cardiac catheterization lab, like the one at St. Luke’s Hospital.

How you can reduce your risk

When it comes to preventing heart attacks, some risk factors such as age, hereditary high blood pressure or high cholesterol, are out of our hands. But people can completely control lifestyle choices that can greatly decrease their risk, says Dr. Stratton. “You control your activity, diet, weight, drug use, tobacco use and stress levels,” she says. “A lot of factors are in our control, and if we take our health into our own hands, we can reduce a lot of risk.”

For more information on how to keep your heart healthy, click here. Call 1-855-411-LWNY (5969) to find a physician.

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