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By: Dan Palmquist, M.D.
Myocardial infarction, more commonly known as heart attack, is the leading cause of death in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, over a million Americans suffer a heart attack each year, and almost half a million die from heart attacks.
Many people who experience a heart attack don’t recognize the warning signs, or are in denial about the signs, and therefore wait hours and even days before seeking medical help. This increases their risk for major damage to the heart or even death. Recognizing the signs of a heart attack and seeking medical attention immediately can help minimize damage to the heart.
But what are the signs of a heart attack? While there are some “classic” symptoms, no two heart attacks are exactly the same. Some people may feel a number of strong warning signs while others feel little or none.
Pain in the center of the chest is one classic symptom. This sensation may feel like a tightness, pressure, squeezing or fullness in the chest. Some people have been known to describe this as a stabbing feeling. The pain lasts more than a few minutes, and may go away and return.
This chest pain may or may not be accompanied by lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea, vomiting, paleness, palpitations, and shortness of breath. An anxious feeling and a sense of impending doom may accompany these symptoms.
Another warning sign of heart attack is a pain or numbness that radiates to the left arm, shoulder, neck, jaw, or back.
The intensity of pain isn’t an indicator of the degree of heart damage that may be occurring. This is one reason why it is critical to seek medical attention immediately after experiencing the first sign of symptoms of a heart attack.
Heart attacks can happen to women and men alike, but the two sexes seem to differ in the symptoms they most commonly experience.
Men often experience the symptoms of chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, fainting and lightheadedness.
These symptoms also appear in women, but women are more likely to experience indigestion, backache, abdominal pain, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, and numbness.
The prognosis after a heart attack also differs for women and men. According to the American Heart Association, women are more than twice as likely to die from a heart attack than men. Heart attacks in women tend to be more damaging and more likely to recur. Women also tend to fare less well with bypass surgery than men.
No one knows exactly why the odds seem to be against women. One theory is that since women tend to experience heart disease at a later age than men, their blood vessels are stiffer; they have had a longer exposure to high cholesterol, and tend to have a thicker buildup of plaque in their coronary arteries.
Whether you’re male or female, time is the enemy when it comes to heart attacks. Quick action at the first sign of symptoms can be critical to treatment and damage reduction. Paying attention to the warning signs and taking them seriously is vitally important.
If you or someone you know experiences any of the warning signs of a heart attack, and the symptoms persist for five minutes, dial 911 and request medical assistance. If you are alone and experiencing symptoms, do not hang up the phone. Leave it off the hook so that medical personnel can locate your address should you become unconscious. Do not try to drive yourself to the hospital.
Chest pain can be associated with a variety of medical disorders. It can be related to your heart or another body system, such as your lungs or gastrointestinal tract. Any pain should be taken seriously and should be evaluated by a qualified medical professional.
More than 60 percent of heart attack victims experience symptoms before the heart attack occurs. The symptoms can occur hours, days or even weeks before the heart attack. Recognizing and acting on these warning signs can literally be a matter of life or death -- maybe even yours.
Dr. Palmquist is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.