It is one of the scariest health events and one of the most important to quickly recognize and address. Known to doctors as a myocardial infarction, I’m talking about a heart attack.
Each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 790,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of these, 580,000 are a first heart attack.
While one in five heart attacks produce heart damage with no symptoms – known as a silent heart attack – the vast majority of heart attacks are characterized by certain signs and symptoms. Learning to recognize a heart attack in its earliest moments, especially among those with the highest risk, can be the key to preventing permanent heart muscle damage and even death.
The heart is a muscular organ that serves to pump blood throughout the body. The heart itself is supplied with blood through the coronary arteries. A heart attack occurs when a portion of the heart muscle does not receive enough blood flow. The longer the time that blood flow to the heart muscle is limited, the more damage occurs. The goal is to recognize the event as early as possible and seek prompt medical attention to restore normal blood flow in the heart.
Common symptoms of a heart attack are: chest pain or discomfort; pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck or back; shortness of breath; feeling weak, light-headed or faint; and pain or discomfort in the arms or shoulder. Other symptoms could include unexplained tiredness, palpitations, a cold sweat and nausea or vomiting. Passing out or sudden cardiac arrest may also occur.
Even though most people relate chest pain with heart attack, which is appropriate, nearly one in three heart attack sufferers may not experience chest pain. Risk factors for heart attack include tobacco smoking, chronic high blood pressure (known as hypertension), diabetes mellitus, high cholesterol, older age and male gender. Women also suffer heart attacks, which are responsible for one in five female deaths in the U.S.
If you or another person begin experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, it is important to call 911 immediately. The sooner you seek emergency medical care, the better your chances of intact survival. At the hospital, rapid testing can confirm the diagnosis and direct heart attack sufferers to life-saving care, including interventions to restore normal blood flow to the heart muscle.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of a heart attack early and taking immediate action can save a life – maybe even yours.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.