Despite general public perception that a heart attack strikes quickly and without warning, more than 50 percent of patients actually experience early signs and symptoms of a heart attack as much as two weeks before the actual coronary event.
If these early warning signs are recognized in time, there’s a far greater chance that patients can be treated before the heart is damaged. As much as 85 percent of heart damage occurs within the first two hours of a heart attack.
Prompt treatment is especially important given that heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States.
“Don’t ignore the symptoms – that’s the message here,” said Julie Ward, the chest pain coordinator at Tucson Medical Center. TMC is an accredited chest pain center through the Society of Chest Pain Centers, and is also a certified cardiac arrest center.
“Even if you think it might be something slight, the important thing is to recognize what the symptoms of a heart attack look like, and then seek treatment. With immediate action, medical personnel can help prevent muscle damage before it causes a lifetime of problems.”
Just recently, a seemingly fit and active woman in her 40s came to the TMC’s emergency room because she’d been having pain radiating along her arm for a few days. She thought she pulled a muscle in yoga. It turns out, she was having a heart attack, Ward said.
Early Heart Attack Care, or EHAC, includes knowing some of the subtle danger signs, which may include nausea, jaw pain, fatigue, chest pressure or discomfort, back pain, shortness of breath, arm pain and weakness.
Those experiencing the beginnings of a heart attack may not have all of the symptoms on the list. Some may seem subtle and intermittent, until they finally become more constant and severe.
Ward said gender also may play a role in how a patient experiences symptoms. More women than men die of heart disease each year, despite a perception that heart attacks are a male problem. Most women may experience the standard chest pain and discomfort. But other symptoms may be more subtle, such as light-headedness, sweating, nausea, back pain or shortness of breath without chest discomfort.
Ward said people experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath should call 911 – and they should do the same for those around them who might be showing the same symptoms.
When minutes count, emergency personnel can help start treatment right away and can call ahead to the emergency department staff to clear the way for prompt attention upon arrival.
Ward recommends following The American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7:
- Don’t smoke
- Keep a healthy body weight
- Get at least 150 minutes or moderate to intense physical activity each week, or 75 minutes or vigorous intensity activity
- Eat a healthy diet
- Keep total cholesterol less than 200 mg/dL
- Keep blood pressure before 120/80 mm Hg
- Keep fasting blood glucose less than 100 mg/dL
To see how well you’re doing with the guidelines, the American Heart Association offers My Life Check, which will provide a personal heart score with just a few simple questions. Visit http://mylifecheck.heart.org/ for more information.