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Monday 25 July 2011

Top 5 Heart Attack Symptoms that Should Have You Calling 911

Heart attacks, or acute myocardial infarctions, are the leading cause of death for people over the age of 40. In the United States alone, there are 1.1 million heart attacks per year, and about 550,000 of those are fatal.

A heart attack happens when arteries get completely blocked and the heart is deprived of oxygen because blood can't get through the blockage. When the heart is deprived of oxygen, its cells start to die. The chest pain that most people associate with heart attacks is the heart's way of calling out for help when it starts dying.

Many people think heart attacks are more of a problem for men than for women, but in fact the opposite is true -- 53 percent of those who died from heart attacks in the United States in 1998 were women, and women may even have slightly different symptoms from men.

Most heart attacks aren't as dramatically painful as the movies suggest. The symptoms of a heart attack are varied and may be mild. Chest pain is the most common sign, but some people don't experience that at all. There are a bunch of warning signs, and they're different from person to person. It's not easy to know whether a symptom like nausea or a racing heart is signaling a heart attack. In most cases, though, and especially if you have several risk factors for heart attack, it's better to call for professional help as soon as possible. The sooner you get treatment, the better the chance of survival. You should never wait more than five minutes if you think you might be having a heart attack.

But how do you know? In this article, we'll look at the five most common symptoms of a heart attack. Not everyone has all symptoms, and because each of them can signify an array of conditions, it may be difficult to clearly attribute any one of them to a heart attack. But some signs are surer than others and should have you dialing 911 as quickly as possible.

The most definite sign is first on our list: Where there is chest pain, medical care should follow without delay.

5: Chest Pain and/or Pressure

Chest pain may be the stereotypical heart-attack symptom, but it's one to pay attention to.
If you are doubled over while clutching your chest in agony, you needn't contemplate the chances that the pain indicates a heart attack. Just call 911. Sections of your heart are probably dying, and if you don't get help immediately, you may have permanent heart damage -- if you survive at all. And strange as it may sound, intense, debilitating pain is probably the best symptom you can have if you have to have a heart attack.

The chest pain or pressure associated with a heart attack is called angina, and it's the most common symptom. Unfortunately for long-term survival, angina is usually much milder than people think, and this delays them from seeking attention. People may think it's nothing and just wait for it to pass. The result of this delay may be permanent heart damage that could have been avoided if the person had sought immediate medical attention.

Even if the pain is just mild or moderate, there are certain characteristics that may help you determine whether what you're feeling is a heart attack or just a bit of nervousness because you're starting a new job or going out on a first date. Call 911 immediately if:

You experience severe, debilitating chest pain.
You feel any level of pain or pressure in the center of your chest for more than a minute or two, and sitting down or resting doesn't make it go away instantly. It may also go away and then come back. This feeling in the chest may also be experienced as tightness, aching, a burning sensation, fullness or squeezing.

Even if sitting down or resting does make the pain or pressure subside, you should still seek medical attention as soon as possible, as this could indicate a pre-heart-attack state of oxygen deprivation or a mild heart attack.

You definitely shouldn't mess around with chest pain -- no matter what. Other symptoms, though, can be more ambiguous. The next symptom on the list might be due to any number of less serious conditions, but it's important to realize that it could be telling you to call 911.

4: Upper Body Discomfort

Sometimes upper body pain is a sign that parts of your heart are dying.
Movies and TV often show someone clutching his or her left arm during a heart attack. Pain in one, either or both arms is indeed a sign that you could be having a heart attack.

Arms aren't the only places besides the chest where heart attack pain can manifest, though. You could also experience pain in the jaw, left shoulder, back or neck. And as with the chest pain, it may feel very mild -- like a tightness, pressure or general discomfort.

Of course, this type of pain could also indicate overdoing it in a tennis match. One way to tell that the pain in your shoulder or back is indicating a heart attack is if it's happening in conjunction with chest pain. If your left shoulder starts to ache and your chest hurts, too, by all means call 911 immediately.

It's important, by the way, that you call 911 first, not a family member or friend. Call a friend only after emergency personnel are on their way.

If your back, arm or shoulder hurts and you also have the next symptom on the list, you should get medical attention without thinking twice, no matter your age or state of health or whether your chest hurts.

3: Shortness of Breath

While women can experience the same heart-attack symptoms as men, they're also more likely to experience less common symptoms. These include fatigue, trouble sleeping, flulike aches and pains and indigestion.

Difficulty breathing is a good reason to call 911 regardless, whether it indicates a heart attack or not. But it's good to understand that shortness of breath isn't just associated with lung activity; it could also be a sign that your heart is calling for help.

Experiencing "shortness of breath" can mean several things in terms of how it feels -- it could mean you find yourself struggling to breathe. It could mean you suddenly feel the need to take deep, long breaths -- and maybe (but not always) you have trouble doing so. It could also mean your breathing speeds up and/or your breaths are shallow.

As with the other symptoms on this list, it's especially important that you call for help without wasting time if you experience breathing irregularities and also have another symptom of heart attack, like pain in your back or arms.

That other symptom might also be a racing heart, which is next up on the list of heart attack warning signs.

2: Racing Heart

If your heart rate doesn't slow down after you stop exercising, you could be having a heart attack.
When your pulse speeds up, it's an obvious indicator that your heart is working overtime. Your pulse reflects your heart's pumping speed: Each beat of your heart pushes blood through your body, and you can feel the pressure of each push in places like your wrist or your neck.

When your pulse rate increases, it means your heart is pumping faster. It can also mean it's having trouble pumping and is working harder and faster to get enough blood to your body parts. This can mean you're having a heart attack.

The trouble is, an increased heart rate, even in combination with shortness of breath, could also indicate other things -- especially if you're exercising. A good way to tell if your heartbeat is speedy because you're running or because you're having a heart attack is to sit down and see if it slows down. If it doesn't, and you smoke or have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and especially if you also have pain in your left shoulder or arms, get to a phone and worry about sorting it out later.

To complicate matters further, a racing heart and shortness of breath can also be a sign of an anxiety attack, and a feeling of anxiety is also an indicator of a heart attack.

1: Intense Anxiety and/or Cold Sweat

Intense anxiety can sometimes signal a heart attack.
Like most other symptoms on this list, it's seldom cut-and-dried when you feel causeless anxiety -- it's sometimes a sign your heart is in trouble. It can also mean you have an anxiety disorder  or there's something you're unconsciously very worried about. Or, the fear is entirely warranted because your heart muscle is in the process of dying, and you just don't realize it.

Awareness can help you make the call. Anxiety is a common symptom of lots of ailments, but ask yourself these questions:

Does your anxiety seem entirely irrational?
Is this the first time you're experiencing this type of anxiety?
Does it feel like a sense of impending doom -- like something bad is about to happen, but you don't know what that is?
Are you also feeling dizzy, nauseous, sweaty or clammy?
Do you also have one or more of the other symptoms on this list?
If so, you should call 911. It could be a heart attack, and it's best not to wait it out to find out for sure. After all, even if it's an anxiety or panic attack and not a heart attack, you'll probably still need to get medical help, so you might as well get to the hospital.

While it's difficult to know if anxiety, a racing heart or an aching shoulder means your heart is dying, the worse news is that some heart attacks have no symptoms at all. There's something called a silent heart attack, and you'd never know you're having one until it's too late. One study in Massachusetts found that about 25 percent of heart attacks were only discovered later during routine exams, because they gave off no warning signs. The best way to prevent permanent damage, then, is to get regular heart screening if you know you're at risk. That way, even if you do have a silent heart attack, you'll get help for it the next time you see your cardiologist, not when you keel over.

Heart Attack -- Symptoms. Cleveland Clinic.
Heart Attack Symptoms -- Different for Men and Women? Go Ask Alice.
Heart attack symptoms: Know what signals a medical emergency. Mayo Clinic.
Heart Attack Symptoms and Warning Signs. American Heart Association.
Heart Attack Symptoms and Warning Signs. Health Central.

Originally published on Discovery Health by Julia Layton.

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