February is American Heart Month, so you should take this opportunity to better understand the symptoms and warning signs of a heart attack. A heart attack is the result of a blockage in the heart’s arteries, which can reduce or completely cut off blood supply to part of the heart. Irreversible injury to the heart muscle will occur if treatment is not received promptly, so remember these symptoms and call 911 immediately if you begin to experience one or more of them:
n Uncomfortable pressure, fullness or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes
n Mild to intense pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck or arms. This pain might feel like pressure, tightness or burning, and could be felt in the chest, upper abdomen, neck, jaw or inside the arms or shoulders
- Chest discomfort accompanied by fainting, sweating, nausea, shortness of breath or lightheadedness
- Anxiety, nervousness and cold, sweaty skin
- Increased or irregular heart rate
- A feeling of impending doom
The heart muscle pain called angina is often the first sign of blocked coronary arteries, which can lead to a heart attack. This discomfort tends to be noticed as a feeling of heaviness, pressure, tightness or aching in the chest, usually with a shortness of breath. Angina occurs most commonly during exercise, and the discomfort usually disappears after exertion. If you feel this sort of pain, consult a cardiologist immediately to avoid a future heart attack.
Silent heart attacks are the most extreme case of silent ischemia, a chronic shortage of oxygen. Approximately 25-30 percent of heart attack victims had no previous symptoms of the blockages that had been gradually developing in their arteries. The absence of pain, however, does not mean there is an absence of damage during a silent heart attack. The predominant risk factors of coronary artery disease include age, sex, genetic predisposition, diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, smoking, lack of exercise and obesity. If you have more than one of these factors going against you, you should undergo a screening for silent ischemia.
Dr. Eric Guerrant is medical director of Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center’s Emergency Department.