Most people think that chest pain, accompanied by pain in the left arm, is the primary warning of a heart attack. But that description can be deceptive. The beginning of a heart attack can be signaled by pain in a variety of locations or, rarely, without any pain at all. Therefore, a closer look at the early warning signs of a heart attack is important.
DOES A HEART ATTACK ALWAYS CAUSE CHEST PAIN?
It is true that pain of some kind usually accompanies a heart attack. Most often, that pain is in the middle of the chest. That’s where your heart is — not on the left as many people believe. It can be localized, just under the breastbone, or spread through the whole chest. It may also be felt lower down, in the upper abdomen, where it is most often mistaken for indigestion.
Sometimes chest pain occurs in combination with pain in the neck and jaw or, as many people know, with pain in one or both arms. In others, the pain is not felt in the chest at all. It may be felt in the center of the back, or in one shoulder and the inner arms, or only in the neck — from ear to ear.
Chest pain has been given many descriptions, ranging from a mild ache to unbearably severe pain.
HOW LONG DOES THE PAIN LAST?
It may continue for hours, or be terrible for a short while and then disappear — only to return again later. Any pain that fits any of these descriptions and lasts two minutes or more may indicate a heart attack.
ARE THERE OTHER SYMPTOMS?
Pain is not the only symptom, nor a guaranteed one. You may also experience sweating, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath and palpitations — a sense of fluttering or irregular heartbeat. You may feel weak, faint, dizzy, or turn pale. But no one person can be assured that a heart attack will be signaled by ALL these symptoms. Therefore, any one should be cause for concern.
Unfortunately, most people find it hard to believe they are having a heart attack. Some people take antacids, thinking the pain is from indigestion. Others decide to rest, thinking they strained themselves. Still others try to ignore what’s happening to them, which is the worst thing they can do.
More than 650,000 Americans die from heart attacks every year. More than half of these deaths occur before the person gets to the hospital — usually within two hours after the onset of symptoms. Research has shown that many of these people could have been saved — if they had paid attention to their symptoms and received prompt medical assistance.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO ABOUT SYMPTOMS?
Call your doctor right away. If you can’t reach your doctor immediately, go to the nearest hospital emergency room at once. Do not try to get there on your own. Call 911 for an ambulance.
If you are not alone, have another person do these things for you. While waiting for the ambulance, try to remain quiet. You will probably be more comfortable sitting up rather than lying down. Take nothing to eat or drink.
If you have a history of heart disease and have medication that your doctor has prescribed for such a situation, take it as directed. Write down the name, how much you took and the time you took it. Give this information to the ambulance attendants as soon as they arrive.
Remember, if you have pain in your chest, abdomen, back, shoulders, arms, neck or jaw for more than two minutes, it could be a heart attack. You can’t be sure. It could be something else, but you can’t make the diagnosis yourself — only a doctor can. Get medical attention immediately.