Nobody wants to face a heart attack, so it can be tempting to dismiss any chest discomfort as just a little heartburn or a pulled muscle.
Any warning signs of a heart attack, however, should prompt you to seek medical attention right away, says Randy Pritza, M.D., a cardiologist with Alegent Health Clinic Heart & Vascular Specialists and chief medical officer of Alegent Health Clinic.
"Take it seriously," says Dr. Pritza. "You need to treat your symptoms as if you are having a heart attack until proven otherwise. Call 911 for a rescue squad."
About 1.2 million Americans suffer a heart attack every year, and almost one-third of them die, many before even reaching the hospital. They may have chest discomfort – pressure, burning, aching or tightness – that also travels down the arms or to the neck, shoulders or the back. This sensation could come and go until finally becoming constant and severe.
"You may start having these symptoms when you're walking, running, shoveling snow or cutting the lawn, but even if they go away when you stop the physical activity, assume that this is your heart," says Dr. Pritza.
The Society of Chest Pain Centers outlines other potential symptoms that may be occur alone or in a combination:
- Jaw pain
- Chest pressure, squeezing or discomfort
- Back pain
- Shortness of breath
- A feeling of fullness
"If the symptoms persist, and don't go away within 15 minutes, you can't ignore it," says Dr. Pritza. "You've got to get medical attention."
Warnings for women
Women's symptoms may be a bit more subtle, notes Dr. Pritza, perhaps centering on fatigue or mild discomfort. "I tell women that if they start to feel differently, especially between the belly button and the neck, it could be their heart."
Family history plays a big role in identifying your risk factors, said Dr. Pritza.
"If your mother, dad, brother or sister has a history of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol or has had a stroke – those are factors that put you at a higher baseline risk for heart disease," says Dr. Pritza.
People with diabetes may have no symptoms of a heart attack whatsoever, so they should see their physician if they don't feel well, he said.
"I've had patients with diabetes come in and say they feel poorly, or thought they had the flu," says Dr. Pritza, "but it turns out that they actually had a heart attack."
Most people with heart attack symptoms end up in the Emergency Department because a family member or friend insists on calling 911, or because the pain becomes so intense that they can't stand it anymore, he said.
The right place, the right time, the right level of care
An accredited Chest Pain Center can quickly diagnose and treat chest pain, giving patients the thorough level of care that they need for their condition.
"If you are having a heart attack, the Chest Pain Center provides a rapid response to get that blockage in your artery opened up," he says."The Emergency Department staff and cardiologists are specially trained to get that artery open."
In assessing whether a patient has had a heart attack, the Chest Pain Center conducts a series of blood tests and electrocardiograms (EKGs) over a five-to-nine-hour time period.
"Sometimes a blood test doesn't become abnormal for several hours," says Dr. Pritza. "Many times the first or second test may seem fine, but the third blood test turns positive up to nine hours later."
If it turns out that you didn't have a heart attack, that doesn't mean you aren't having heart problems, says Dr. Pritza. The Chest Pain Center can also conduct a cardiac stress test within 24 hours to determine if you have blockages that might put you at risk for a heart attack.
All five Alegent Health hospitals in the Omaha metropolitan area have accredited Chest Pain Centers located in their Emergency Departments.
To learn more about your potential risks, take this free heart health assessment then make an appointment to discuss the results with your physician.