If we believe Hollywood, heart attacks are very dramatic where a main character (usually a man) clutches his chest, falls over and is carted away in an ambulance. The reality though can be quite different. What are the symptoms of a heart attack that we need to keep an eye out for?
First of all, let’s go back to basics. A heart attack happens when a blockage in the arteries that supply blood to the heart, called the coronary arteries become blocked rather suddenly. The heart muscle beyond this blockage is deprived of oxygen and begins to die. The sooner we can recognise that someone is having a heart attack, the sooner we can re-open the blocked artery, restoring blood supply and rescuing the heart muscle. Ideally, we like to reopen a blocked artery within 90 minutes from the time someone reaches hospital so every moment matters.
Sometimes, some of these symptoms come and go in a condition called angina. Angina is a condition where the blockage hasn’t happened suddenly but has built up over time. It still indicates that something is not right with the heart and still needs attention.
The symptoms of a heart attack are generally thought to be pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest, usually in the middle. Sometimes, its associated with that sensation travelling into the jaw, the arms or the back. Someone who is having a heart attack can also feel nauseous, break into a cold sweat or feel dizzy. Other people can feel very short of breath.
In women, the symptoms tend to be a little different. We think that this is because the biology of men and women’s hearts, as well as the way their heart experiences a heart attack is different. Women tend to have less pain or chest discomfort and have more shortness of breath, nausea or pain in other areas such as the neck, jaw, arm, tummy or back.
It’s also reasonably common in both men but especially women to not experience chest pain but rather a vague discomfort. Some people even feel a kind of heart burn, where they get pain in the upper belly, just below the rib cage. It feels kind of similar to heartburn so can be quite confusing.
What should you do if you think someone or you are experiencing a heart attack? The most important thing is calling 000 and getting an ambulance – it’s never wrong to call an ambulance when you’re worried about your heart. Don’t try and drive yourself, or someone else. After that, here are some steps you can follow.
- Stop what you’re doing and rest immediately
- Tell someone what is happening if you’re near to someone else
- If you have a heart medication such as GTN spray, take a dose to see how your symptoms respond
- Unless you have an allergy to aspirin, or have been told not to take it by your doctor, chew 300mg of aspirin while you call the ambulance. The aspirin thins the blood a little and can help to restore blood flow down the coronary arteries
Remember that time is heart so get help as soon as you can.