Monday, February 11, 2013


Know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack

Last month a friend of mine had a heart attack.  He didn’t recognize the early signs because they weren’t typical, like the crushing chest pain people often describe as “an elephant standing on my chest.” 
Several people have died while shoveling snow during the blizzard this past weekend.   Perhaps they experienced unusual symptoms and ignored them because didn’t recognize they were having a heart attack.  Perhaps they had crushing chest pain, but it was too late to call emergency medical responders. 

A heart attack strikes someone about every 34 seconds.  It occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely.  This happens because the arteries that supply the heart with blood have become thicker and harder from a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and plaque.    Often, the symptoms in men and women are different.  Here is what to look for:

•  Chest pain. Discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes; uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
•  Indigestion
•  Shortness of breath
•  Cold sweats
• Nausea
• Lightheadedness
•  Pain in other areas such as one or both arms, the neck, jaw, back or stomach.

As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort.  But some women have no acute chest pain and are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other symptoms such as:

•  Back pain
•  Jaw pain
•  Shortness of breath
•  Nausea or vomiting
•  Dizziness.

Why do people delay seeking medical attention when they are having heart attack?  Often, they don’t recognize the signs or attribute them to other causes.  My friend had a rather severe case of indigestion, took some antacid, and felt a little better.  Fortunately, he did call his doctor to report it, and was subsequently seen and treated appropriately in the ER.

My mother had a similar experience a few years ago.  She was doing some heavy housecleaning when her upper back started to hurt.  She thought she pulled a muscle, so she didn’t do anything about it. When she mentioned the upper back pain to my sister, she wisely told Mom, “that could be cardiac:  I think you should call your doctor right away.”   Sure enough, my mother was evolving a heart attack, and my sister’s quick thinking may have saved her life.

My colleagues in the ER admit it is sometimes tricky for people to recognize the signs of a heart attack.  They readily agree people can’t come to the ER every time they feel dizziness or nausea, but if it is accompanied by one or more of the other signs, don’t delay. Seek emergency medical attention if the symptoms persist more than five  minutes, and let the professionals evaluate and decide if you are indeed having a heart attack.  It truly is “better to be safe than sorry.” 

Alice Facente is a community education nurse for the Backus Health System. To comment on this column or others, visit the Healthy Living blog at or e-mail Ms. Facente or any of the Healthy Living columnists at

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