Beginners Guide: Knowing the Symptoms of a Heart Attack
February is traditionally recognized as a month in which we celebrate love and friendship on Valentine’s Day. In addition, February is also National Heart Month and it is the perfect time to provide education on heart disease. Despite great strides in the field of medicine, heart disease remains the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.
Roughly 735,000 Americans suffer a heart attack every year. If you think about it, this means someone in this country has a heart attack every 43 seconds! Despite the fact that this is such a common condition, the symptoms often are misinterpreted or go unrecognized, leading patients to not seek immediate medical attention.
A heart attack occurs when blood supply to the heart is suddenly cut off and when this happens, every second counts. The sooner patients seek medical attention, the less chance of death and less chance of permanent heart muscle damage. It is important to act quickly because 50 % of the patients that die of a heart attack pass away within an hour after onset of symptoms.
A classic textbook description of the symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain or discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes. Patients can also experience pain or discomfort in the back, neck, shoulder or jaw as well as shortness of breath. You would think that with this list of symptoms, we would all be easily able to recognize symptoms of a heart attack but unfortunately that’s just not the case.
The biggest challenge in education about the symptoms of a heart attack is that not everyone experiences the classic symptoms. It is not unusual for a patient to say that they had no chest pain at all but rather felt a sensation of heaviness, tightness, pressure, aching, burning, numbness, fullness or squeezing. In addition, some patients, particularly women, can present with sudden dizziness, cold sweats, unusual tiredness as well as nausea and vomiting. It is important to know that if you develop these symptoms you should seek medical attention right away.
Many experience symptoms and wait too long. Often patients can be indecisive or reluctant about seeking treatment. They may not believe they are at risk of a heart attack. They may not believe the symptoms are serious and think that they are having a benign condition such as indigestion instead. Some patients feel embarrassed about seeking care, especially if the symptoms occur at night or on a weekend. They may have additional responsibilities that they don’t want to disregard, such as taking care of their children or they may not want their loved ones to worry.
Whatever the reason, reluctance to seek immediate medical attention can have drastic consequences so it is important to call 911 right away when these symptoms first appear. I will borrow a phrase from a recent heart health campaign: “Don’t die of embarrassment”.
Calling 911 is the key to kick-starting a chain of events that will lead to rapid treatment of a heart attack. Emergency medical services have the capability to obtain an EKG, establish the diagnosis, begin transport to the nearest medical facility that provides heart attack treatment and most importantly, call ahead so that the heart attack treatment team is ready and waiting when the patient arrives. Depending on the patient’s geographic location, they may go to a center that treats heart attacks with clot busting medications called fibrinolytics or they may go to a center that treats heart attacks by opening up the blood vessel with a procedure called primary percutaneous coronary intervention.
Here in Northeast Arkansas, St Bernards Medical Center is a key part of the Delta Ridge STEMI network. We work closely with emergency medical services and hospitals from the surrounding areas to provide rapid and high quality care of heart attack patients. We strive to meet the American Heart Association (AHA) quality guidelines in treatment of patients with a heart attack. Our goal is to save lives and minimize heart muscle damage in patients with heart attack.
St Bernards Medical Center has recently been recognized by the AHA with the 2015 Mission: Lifeline Gold Plus award. This award is recognition of the extraordinary measures that we take to ensure high quality heart attack care. We are very proud of this award, particularly as we are the only hospital in Arkansas to achieve this distinction in 2015. We are proud to work alongside of many emergency medical services and surrounding hospitals that helped us achieve this award and we hope to continue to provide the highest quality service to this community in the years ahead.
Dr. Jaime Chavez is a board certified interventional cardiologist who sees patients at St. Bernards Medical Center and at St. Bernards Heart & Vascular. He came to Jonesboro after completing advanced training in both an interventional cardiology fellowship at Tufts University Baystate Medical Center Program in Springfield, Mass., and a cardiovascular disease fellowship at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. He earned his medical degree from Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras and has been on the medical staff at St. Bernards for five years.