“Am I having a heart attack?”
Those words may be the first thing that spring to mind if you experience symptoms like chest pain or extreme shortness of breath.
The first step in surviving a heart attack is being able to identify the symptoms so you can get help quickly. If you think you are experiencing a heart attack, call 911 right away.
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What Is a Heart Attack?
“A heart attack occurs when part of the heart doesn’t receive enough blood flow due to a blockage in one or more of the coronary arteries,” says Christopher B. Haas, DO, an interventional cardiologist and medical director of the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute at UPMC Western Maryland. “Imagine the arteries of the heart as pipes that supply blood to the muscle of the heart; if one or more of these pipes gets clogged up, the muscle no longer receives the oxygen and nourishment it needs. That deprived portion of the muscle begins to die and malfunction, and can lead to heart failure and/or death.”
Symptoms of a Heart Attack
It’s important to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack since delays in getting medical attention can lead to greater damage to your heart and be fatal. The faster you can get help, the better your chances of recovery. Here’s what to look for:
- Chest discomfort/pain/pressure — Usually lasts a few minutes or longer.
- Radiation of discomfort — Often moves to the stomach, jaw, arms, or back.
- Shortness of breath — Trouble breathing, particularly at rest, with or without chest discomfort.
- Nausea, cold sweats — These symptoms may occur with or without chest pain.
In addition, the symptoms of a heart attack often differ greatly for women and men.
“Women don’t always experience ‘classic’ symptoms, like crushing chest pain, radiating arm pain, or shortness of breath,” says Dr. Haas. “Heart attack symptoms in women may be less dramatic and may include unusual fatigue, nausea, confusion, and what the patient often thinks is severe ‘anxiety.’ In women, we generally keep heart attack in the differential diagnosis for any symptoms that occur above the waist. ”
How to Survive a Heart Attack
It’s scary to think about having a heart attack, but you can feel more prepared if you know what to do.
Dr. Haas recommends that your first step should be to call 911 right away – whether you are alone or with others. Do not have a friend or family member drive you to the emergency room, and do not drive yourself. Emergency medical professionals not only get you to the hospital faster, but they can start treating you immediately.
If someone is having the classic symptoms of heart attack, and they are conscious and talking, after calling 911 it is reasonable to have them chew a full 325 mg aspirin or four of the 81 mg (baby) aspirins as this can reduce the risk of serious complications from heart attack. For people not having classic heart attack symptoms, it is better to wait for emergency medical services to arrive and allow them to make the decision on taking aspirin.
Getting Treatment for a Heart Attack
Treatment for a heart attack varies depending on the situation. However, quickly restoring blood flow to the heart helps to lessen the damage. Here are some typical ways this can be done:
- Clot-dissolving medicines — Emergency doctors may give you medicines to dissolve the clot in your vessel.
- Angioplasty — This nonsurgical technique involves threading a catheter, usually through an artery in your wrist or groin, and a tiny balloon into your heart artery to open the blockage.
- Stent — Another nonsurgical technique in which the doctor may insert through the wrist or groin a small cylinder of metal called a stent. The stent is placed into the heart artery to help keep blood flowing through it. The stent stays in the artery and is not removed.
- Bypass surgery — If there are many blocked arteries, or blockages in very specific arteries of the heart, such as the critical left main artery, doctors may recommend bypass surgery to create a detour or “bypass” around the blockages. A bypass involves open heart surgery and using blood vessels harvested from other locations in the body (such as leg veins) to create the bypass.
There are ways to reduce your risk for heart attack. Talk to your health care provider about your risks for a heart attack based on your family history and lifestyle, and learn how quitting smoking, adopting a heart healthy diet, stress reduction, and exercise can help you avoid one.
To learn more about heart attack or heart issues, visit the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute website.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.