Heart Attacks: Learn the Signs, Save Lives

In the United States, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds. Early intervention is critical to surviving a heart attack (also known as a myocardial infarction). Learn the common signs and symptoms to help save lives.

Key takeaways:
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    A heart attack is when one of the coronary arteries becomes blocked and does not supply the heart with blood.
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    There are 5 common symptoms of heart attacks that can help you recognize when to call for help.
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    Some people have uncommon or silent symptoms, so they do not recognize they are having a heart attack.
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    Long-term treatment, including lifestyle changes, may be needed to recover from a heart attack.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart becomes reduced or blocked in one of the arteries that feed the heart blood. The lack of blood flow to the heart causes the tissue to start to die, and the heart's tissue death is known as a heart attack. If the blockage is not quickly treated, it can permanently damage the heart muscle and even cause death.

Heart attacks are most often caused by a build-up of plaque on the inner walls of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. The plaque can build up enough to cause a disturbance in flow or block it completely. Sometimes the plaque can break off and travel to the coronary arteries causing a heart attack.

What are the 5 most common symptoms of a heart attack?

Heart attacks are medical emergencies and can be fatal if not treated promptly. Symptoms can vary from person to person, but there are common symptoms that many people experience with a heart attack. It is essential to be aware of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack so you can seek medical attention as soon as possible.

The 5 common symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Lightheadedness, nausea, or vomiting
  • Pain in the jaw, neck, or back
  • Arm or shoulder pain
  • Shortness of breath

Chest pain or pressure is one of the classic signs of a heart attack that most people recognize. Some people may experience pain in the chest, and others may describe it as crushing pressure, like an elephant sitting on their chest.

Lightheadedness, nausea, or vomiting are common symptoms that many women experience during heart attacks. These symptoms can indicate a complication with the heart or cardiovascular system. When the heart is stressed, it releases hormones that can make you feel light-headed and nauseous.

Pain in the jaw, neck, or back is another classic symptom of a heart attack where the pain radiates to other areas. This commonly occurs as nerves carry pain signals to the brain but can't recognize the heart muscle being in pain.

Arm or shoulder pain is a classic symptom where chest pain radiates to the arm or shoulder; sometimes, there is only shoulder and arm pain and no chest pain. The pain signals sent to the brain from the heart are recognized in other areas but not the heart itself.

Shortness of breath results from the heart's inability to push oxygen-rich blood through the body. This causes you to feel like you are short of breath and need to breathe faster to get more oxygen.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately. Do not try to drive yourself or someone else to the hospital, as this may delay life-saving treatment. The sooner you receive medical treatment, the better your outcome will be.

What are the uncommon symptoms of a heart attack?

Symptoms can vary from person to person, making it difficult to tell if they are having a heart attack. Most people are familiar with the common heart attack symptoms, namely the classic chest pain and right arm pain often shown on television. However, several less common signs can indicate you are having a heart attack.

Some people may have symptoms that mimic other conditions or have no symptoms at all. A silent heart attack may go ignored as the person does not realize they are having a heart attack.

Silent or uncommon heart attack symptoms include:

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Sore muscles in the back, chest, or arm
  • Tiredness
  • Heartburn

Women often experience heart attacks differently than men. While chest pain is the most common symptom in both genders, women are more likely to experience uncommon and silent symptoms.

Symptoms that women experience more than men during a heart attack include:

  • Cold sweats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the back or arms
  • Jaw pain

Because heart attacks can vary so much from person to person, everyone needs to be aware of the signs and symptoms. If you think you or someone around you is having a heart attack, don't wait and call 911 immediately. Getting treatment as soon as possible can save lives.

What are my risks of having a heart attack?

Heart attacks are one of the leading causes of death in the United States, and the risk factors for having a heart attack are well known. However, many people are unaware of their risk factors for having a heart attack.

Risk factors for having a heart attack include:

  • Family history of heart attacks
  • Men aged 45 or older
  • Women aged 55 or older
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity

Anyone can develop a heart condition, but understanding your risk factors is an essential step in prevention. If you have any risk factors for a heart attack, make sure to speak to your doctor and develop a plan to reduce your risk.

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

If you think you are having a heart attack, it is important to seek medical help immediately. The sooner you receive treatment, the better your chances of survival and recovery.

If you are with someone who is having a heart attack, call 911 or your local emergency number right away. Then, if possible, have the person sit down and rest. If the person stops breathing or loses consciousness, begin CPR immediately.

Proper medical treatment is essential for someone who is having a heart attack, so do not delay in seeking help. Getting to a hospital quickly can mean the difference between life and death.

Heart attack treatment

Heart attacks are considered a medical emergency and must be treated immediately. The hospital will confirm you are having a heart attack with different tests while treating your symptoms.

The hospital may treat your heart attack with medications and sometimes an intervention to open the arteries called a percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI). During the PCI, the doctor can look at the coronaries and help restore the blood flow in them.

In some cases, if the blockage is severe enough, the doctor may recommend open-heart surgery to make new arteries called a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG).

Recovery after a heart attack

Recovering from a heart attack can take weeks and sometimes months before returning to normal. You may feel weak or fatigued during this time and have low stamina. This is normal while you are healing. Don't over-exert yourself but remain active to slowly build up your activity level.

Your doctor may place you on various medications to help support your heart function, lower your cholesterol, and prevent blood clots from forming again. The new drugs are essential to be strict with taking to prevent another heart attack.

To reduce the risk of having another heart attack, your doctor may have you eat a heart-healthy cardiac diet.

A heart-healthy diet includes:

  • Low fat
  • Low sodium
  • Lean meats
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Low or no sodium called and frozen foods
  • Whole grains
  • Unsaturated oils (olive, peanut, canola, avocado)
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