Nearly half a million Americans die every year from Heart Attacks. In fact, there are over 1.2 million heart attacks per year in the United States. Even though there has been much public education in the past 20 years as to what the symptoms of heart attack are, the number one thing said by patients with heart attack is "I'm not having a heart attack." Moreover, the number one reason for prehospital death of heart attack victims is that people deny they are having one and assume the pain will go away, and, therefore, wait too long to call 911. This, of course, makes understanding body language paramount when identifying heart attack in some family members.
One of the most worrisome issues that emergency medical care providers deal with is that many patients with heart attack do not have the classic symptoms of a heart attack. This problem can lead to misdiagnosis, delay in treatment, or unnecessary treatment.
How can you know if you are having a heart attack? What are the normal symptoms? And what factors can change your symptoms or mask your symptoms?
Classic Signs Of Heart Attack
The most widely thought of sign of heart attack, chest pain, is actually the most classic sign. Almost every heart attack patient has chest discomfort of some sort. Some have classic mid chest pain, some feel a tightness, some even feel a "lump" in their chest. Of course, not every chest pain is a heart attack, but as this is the most common sign or symptom, it should be treated with caution, especially when it begins without exertion, persists, and/or is combined with other signs or symptoms.
There are many other classic signs and symptoms of heart attack, and most of them can happen in varying degrees. Here is a sample of what you should be looking for:
- Nausea / Vomitting
- Diaphoresis (very heavy sweating)
- Pain or tingling radiating down one or both arms
- Pain radiating to the neck or jaw
- Pain in the back
- Trouble breathing
- Irregular heart beat, racing or skipping
As you see on the list, one of the most common signs of Heart Attack can be denial. Many patients, especially males, tend to deny that they are having a heart attack and write their symptoms off as something else. If you are feeling one or more of these symptoms, especially if they begin without exertion and/or are persistent, you may be having a heart attack. However, even if you do not have these classic signs, you still may have a heart attack. Below you will see that sometimes heart attack symptoms can be masked or changed.
Factors That Mask Heart Attack Symptoms
Although not every heart attack is the same, there are some specific conditions/factors that can change symptoms or mask them altogether. The most common factor to change symptoms is sex of the patient. One of the most difficult heart attacks to notice in the field is one occurring in a woman with atypical symptoms. Sometimes women may have stomach pain, lower back pain, headache, or even no pain whatsoever. Understanding body language with these patients may do no good.
Another factor is existing medical condition. Patients who have diabetis very commonly will not experience pain during heart attack, simply feeling like they have a cold or flu with nausea and sweats. People who have had stroke may not experience pain the way they may have before the stroke. These factors and others can make early recognition difficult at best. However, most of the the time, even if pain is absent, patients will still have a feeling of anxiety and will experience weakness.
What To Do If You Are Having A Heart Attack
The first thing anyone should do when they suspect they may be having a heart attack is to call 911. Ambulances are equipped with important medication that can help lessen or even reverse damage done by heart attack if given early enough. They also have specific tools that to help you should you begin to have an irregular heart rhythm that deteriorates, which is one of the leading causes of death from heart attack.
Some people say to take aspirin when you think you are having a heart attack. On the ambulance, you will be given 324 mg of aspirin, but if you are at risk of heart attack, you can consult your primary care physician as to what he would have you do in the case of a suspicion of a new onset heart attack.
Other people who have history of heart attack or angina may have been prescribed nitroglycerin tablets to take should they experience pain. If this is true for you, take the nitro as your cardiologist has prescribed. They should have told you how many to take and when to take them. Do not deviate from the prescribed amount, because this medication can cause a dramatic lowering of your blood pressure that when done improperly can cause more damage to your heart.
Also, be sure not to accept Nitroglycerin from someone else who has a prescription for it. If you have not been prescribed Nitro and take it without medical personnel checking your EKG, there is a risk you could have a dangerous drop in blood pressure that could cause death. This can happen if your blood pressure is already low or if you are having a specific type of heart attack.
Peter Donnelly from UK on November 01, 2014:
Your list of symptoms is spot on and as I found out last week the most dangerous one is denial. I was so lucky that my fiancée works at the local A&E Dept and recognized all the symptoms and ignored my "It's only wind" protestations and called the ambulance.
I had always thought that a lot of pain would be involved in an "Heart Attack" and the fact that it is more a strong discomfort makes one even more dangerous.
A great hub that highlights a very dangerous, yet common occurrence.
Vickie Bovender from Southeastern US on March 31, 2011:
This is important information and well written. I'd never heard of headache as a possible symptom of heart attack. In fact, most of the symptoms could be (and probably are) mistaken for other ailments. Very good Hub. Voting up and useful.