Tuesday, April 19, 2011 9:07 AM
By Donna V. Scaglione
It’s not easy to know whether you’re having a heart attack. So-called “movie heart attacks,” in which the pain seems severe and sudden leaving little doubt a person is being stricken, are not typical. According to the American Heart Association, most heart attacks move slowly, causing mild pain that can be puzzling to the patient.
Heart experts advise if you think you might be having a heart attack, don’t try and figure it out for yourself. Call 9-1-1. Time matters, they warn. For every minute a heart attack goes on, precious heart muscle dies because of a lack of blood and oxygen feeding it. Know the warning signs and act.
1. Chest pains
Chest pain is a common symptom for heart attack, and how it presents can vary. It’s been described as a heaviness, tightness, or a squeezing in the chest. It can linger for a few minutes, or come and go, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
"It may be a chest fullness that they don't recognize as pain," Dr. Gordon Tomaselli, chief of cardiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, tells AARP.org. "Sometimes it doesn't particularly hurt. It's an uncomfortable sensation."
You might also be hit with sweating or a cold sweat, coughing, a feeling of lightheadedness, and breathing difficulty or shortness of breath.
Proper circulation throughout the body requires a healthy heart. When the heart isn’t working correctly, blood can’t carry the body waste’s products away and that can lead to swelling from fluid retention, explains Caring.com. This condition, called edema, usually begins in the feet, legs, and ankles and can be accompanied by pain from a lack of blood to the tissue. Always alert your doctor to any pain and swelling you experience.
Sometimes it can be difficult to discern whether the chest pain you’re experiencing is heartburn or you’re having a heart attack. Experts say that if you are prone to heartburn and you have pain after a big or spicy meal, taking an antacid and seeing if the pain fades might make sense. However, if you’ve never had such pain before and it’s especially intense and you’re sweating too, play it safe and call 9-1-1, AARP.org advises. The same goes for a panic attack. If the racing heart is familiar to you, then perhaps you’re having another panic attack. But if the sensation feels foreign, act on the assumption it’s your heart that is suffering.
4. How women’s symptoms differ
Many people might be surprised to hear that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of American women, surpassing cancer, writes Newsmax Health Contributor Dr. Chauncey Crandall in his Heart Health Report newsletter. While women experience many of the same classic heart attack symptoms men do such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and sweating, they are more likely to suffer from atypical ones that can be shrugged off as common health problems, he says. According to Crandall and the Cleveland Clinic, those include:
• Pain in the upper back, neck, and shoulder
• Jaw pain
• Burning sensation in the chest
• Anxiety or confusion
• Unusual fatigue lasting for several days
• Nausea and vomiting
5. Call 9-1-1
If your heart attack symptoms worsen or get no better after five minutes, the American Heart Association recommends calling 9-1-1. Do this whether you’re convinced it’s a heart attack or not. This is the fastest way to get help because emergency medical services staff can begin treatment immediately, which is up to an hour sooner than if you’re driven by car to the hospital, according to the AHA. Also, patients suffering from chest pain who arrive via ambulance are more likely to receive attention faster at the hospital, the AHA says.