Valuable heart attack advice that could save your life

Elderly woman having heart attack

A friend of mine ended up in the emergency room this past weekend. She was walking in the woods behind her home — something she does nearly every day —when she felt a squeezing pain in her chest. She didn’t think she was having a heart attack, but the pain wouldn’t go away and she was scared to death that it was a warning sign.

Signs of a heart attack

For some people, there will be no doubt that they’re having a heart attack because the pain will be sudden and intense. But many times, a heart attack starts slowly with only mild discomfort. Either way, it’s important to get medical care right away.

Here are the most common heart attack symptoms:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
    • Usually in the center of the chest
    • Lasts more than a few minutes or comes and goes
    • Can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort)
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat or feeling nauseous or lightheaded

The #1 symptom in men and women is chest pain or discomfort. According to the American Heart Association, women are somewhat more likely than men to also experience other common symptoms, especially shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain. Someone with diabetes may have very mild or even no symptoms. Whatever your symptoms, if you have a concern, err on the side of caution and call 9-1-1.

Think you’re having a heart attack? Don’t waste valuable time debating the issue.

Call 9-1-1.

In the ER

Once she was in the emergency room, my friend was asked a lot of questions about her symptoms, lifestyle and level of activity, medical and family history. There happens to be a strong history of heart disease on one side of her family.

She had an electrocardiogram (EKG), which can show if there’s any damage to the heart — where and how much. It also measures the heart’s electrical activity.

They tested her blood. If the heart muscle is damaged, enzymes and proteins inside its cells are released into the bloodstream. Higher than normal levels of proteins in the blood may indicate a heart attack. Measuring the enzymes can help determine the size of an attack and approximately when it started.

Some other tests that might be done include an echocardiogram, MRI, CT scan and/or heart catheterization.

The tests my friend underwent showed she wasn’t having a heart attack, but the ER doctor decided to keep her overnight for observation. He also ordered a morning stress test. Thankfully, she passed it with flying colors.

What causes heart attacks?

Most heart attacks happen because an artery to the heart is blocked by a buildup of plaque — something that happens gradually over time.

The more blocked the artery becomes, the less blood can flow to that part of the heart.

If the plaque ruptures or breaks open, a blood clot can form at the site and totally block the artery.

Some people will experience warning signs that an artery is narrowing — the first one is usually angina (chest pain). But you may not have any symptoms at all until you are having a heart attack.

Are you at risk?

Thanks to years of research, we know quite a bit about heart attack risk factors. The American Heart Association has an interactive tool called the Heart Attack Risk Calculator that assesses your risk of having a heart attack or dying from coronary heart disease in the next 10 years. If you want to try it out, you’ll get more accurate results if you know your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. If you haven’t had them checked recently, now would be a good time. You’ll also need to know your height, weight and waist circumference.

An ounce of prevention

Some heart attack risk factors you can’t change. For instance, you can’t change your age (risk increases with age), sex (more heart attacks in men) or family history, but there are a number of things you can do to lower your risk of developing heart disease and having a heart attack.

  • If you smoke, quit!
  • Avoid second-hand smoke
  • Control high blood pressure
  • Eat foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and salt
  • Be physically active
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • If you have diabetes, keep your glucose under control

What about aspirin?

Aspirin may help prevent a heart attack or protect arteries during a heart attack because it thins the blood and keeps it from clotting. Before you start taking a daily aspirin you should check with your doctor. According to the American Heart Association, you shouldn’t do it if you:

  • Have an aspirin allergy or intolerance
  • Are at risk for gastrointestinal bleeding or hemorrhagic stroke
  • Drink alcohol regularly
  • Are undergoing any simple medical or dental procedures
  • Take other medications that could interact with aspirin

As for taking one if you think you’re having a heart attack — your first step should always be to call 9-1-1. Never take an aspirin and then wait to see if your symptoms go away before calling for help.

No excuses

Aspirin or not, some people decide to wait things out at home, but the delay could cause serious damage to your heart if you are having a heart attack. It might even make the difference between life and death.

My friend thought about waiting. Here are some of the “good reasons” she came up with:

  • It’s probably nothing
  • If I tell my husband, he’ll be worried
  • I don’t want to waste the ER’s time
  • I can go in tomorrow if it’s not any better

In the end, she was so alarmed by her symptoms, she went to the ER. It was the right thing to do. She needs further testing to figure out what caused her pain, but she has peace of mind knowing that her heart is healthy.

Please, if you think you’re having a heart attack or you’re with someone who may be having one, forget the excuses. Call 9-1-1.

And take a second to share this valuable advice with others.

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.