6 Signs You’re Having a Heart Attack
Every 40 seconds someone in the United States experiences a heart attack. Most people say, “time is money.” But cardiologist Hadley Wilson says, “time is muscle.” That’s because the longer you wait to treat a heart attack the more likely it is that muscle in the heart become permanently damaged. “It’s so important not to delay calling 911,” says Wilson, current chair of the American College of Cardiology’s Board of Governors.
Don’t dismiss these red flags that you need medical care. Immediately.
Pressure in your chest that doesn’t go away
When you’re having a heart attack, your heart is being starved for blood and oxygen. “The result can be persistent pain, ache or pressure in your chest that increases in intensity,” explains Jennifer Mieres, professor of cardiology at the Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine and co-author of Heart Smart For Women: Six Steps In Six Weeks. We can’t emphasize enough the bottom line here: Get help quickly. “What we don’t like to see is people come in after 4 to 6 hours because a lot of damage has been done,” says Wilson. “Call 911 after 5 to 15 minutes.”
Feeling lightheaded or nauseous
“Lightheadedness is often a result of slow heart rate or drop in blood pressure,” explains Wilson, who is also a cardiologist at Sanger Heart and Vascular Institute (Carolinas HealthCare System). “It’s part of the protective system of the body to try to conserve blood pressure and pulse during that time.”
You can differentiate acid indigestion or a bad meal from heart trouble given the additional signs that often come with a heart attack. Look for clusters of symptoms, says Mieres. Heartburn, for example, won’t give you the cold or clamminess that an attack would. Food poisoning, for example, won’t give you the shortness of breath that an attack will.
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Jaw, neck or back pain
You might be thinking that you worked out too hard the day before, slept wrong or are even getting achy bones as you get older, but it could be something more. “Those symptoms may not actually represent arthritis or another problem in that area but could be radiation of the chest pain to those other areas of the body,” says Wilson. Women in particular are more likely to experience back or jaw pain.
Again, look for the constellation of symptoms as your red flag that something might be very wrong. “I don’t want people to lower their guard, but with signs and symptoms of heart attack physicians look for more than one of those occurring at the same time,” says Wilson.
Pain in your arm or shoulder
Aches or tingling in this area can be warning signs that are frequently missed or even misdiagnosed. “We’ve seen people come in with casts on their arm because they thought they had a broken arm or people who’ve come from the dentist with jaw pain who were actually having a heart attack,” says Wilson. While either arm can be affected, it’s often the left one.
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Shortness of breath
This symptom is possibly the hardest to ignore so it takes the least amount of convincing to get someone help. Sometimes you’ll have trouble catching your breath while exerting yourself (moving a piece of furniture) or while under emotional stress (in the middle of an argument). Other times it can wake you up in the middle of the night while you’re at rest. “It’s a warning sign that the heart is being deprived of oxygen,” explains Mieres.
This feels all too familiar
If you’ve experienced a heart attack in the past, you’re at an increased risk of having a second one in the future. Listening to your body is just one of several tips celebrity health and fitness expert, and heart attack survivor, Bob Harper shares as part of his participation in the Survivor’s Have Heart campaign. A repeat is not your destiny. Work with your doctor to get your heart in healthy shape.