You’re going about your day, but don’t feel quite right. You have chest discomfort unlike anything you’ve experienced. You wonder if it’s a pulled muscle or perhaps a bad case of heartburn. After all, it’s not the crushing pain you’ve seen signal a heart problem on TV, so it couldn’t possibly be a heart attack.
Or could it?
The answer to that question is yes, it could be.
More than 800,000 Americans have heart attacks each year. For many, chest discomfort — the kind that can be easily dismissed or mistaken for something else — is a key symptom. That makes knowing how to recognize heart-related chest discomfort especially important. If a heart attack is to blame for your symptoms, acting fast could save your life.
Recognizing Heart Attack Symptoms
“When you’re having a heart attack, an artery supplying blood to your heart is blocked,” said William Colyer, Jr., MD, FACC, a cardiologist with ProMedica Physicians Cardiology. “That prevents oxygen and nutrients from reaching the heart muscle, and that can generally be felt.”
The problem is that while chest discomfort is a textbook symptom of a blocked heart artery, people tend to describe their discomfort differently. Some refer to it as pain or pressure. Others say it’s a feeling of tightness or squeezing in their chest. Of course, there are many other heart attack symptoms, including:
- Pain in the neck, back or shoulders that can sometimes extend to the left jaw and down the left arm.
- Shortness of breath.
- Weakness, lightheadedness, faintness or sweating for no obvious reason.
Nausea or vomiting and unusual tiredness are possible, too, particularly in women. According to Dr. Colyer, women having a heart attack may also be more likely than men to experience discomfort in their upper abdomen rather than their chest.
In general, symptoms typically last for more than a few minutes. Surprisingly though, they often come and go — adding to the confusion about what’s happening with your body.
Looking First to the Heart
Sometimes people describe a sharp, electrical shock type feeling in their chest that lasts for only seconds, then disappears.
Dr. Colyer said something like that is unlikely to be due to a heart problem.
“Heart-related discomfort tends to come on over a little bit of time. It might increase in intensity, reach a peak and then slowly get better,” he explained.
When discomfort is linked to physical exertion or accompanied by feelings of being out of breath, those clues point to a heart issue, as well.
If tests reveal your heart is healthy, doctors will look elsewhere to find the cause of your discomfort. There are many possibilities, including anxiety, muscle strain and digestive problems.
“We always want to make sure we check out the heart, and if it turns out it’s not the heart, then we have the luxury of time,” said Dr. Colyer.
Quick Treatment Leads to Better Outcomes
If you’re having chest discomfort with other heart attack symptoms, consider it an emergency and call 911 right away.
“Time is muscle,” explained Dr. Colyer. “If the muscle is deprived of oxygen for a prolonged period of time, it leads to heart muscle dying.”
Losing heart muscle can cause permanent heart damage, and in some cases, death. But if you get to the hospital quickly, the better your outcome is likely to be. At ProMedica, we understand that every minute counts. That’s why our goal is to diagnose a heart attack and open the blocked artery within 90 minutes.
Years ago, there was little to do for someone beyond hoping a patient would survive. But, luckily, that’s not the case today.
“There have been so many advances in treating heart attacks over the past 10 or 20 years or more,” said Dr. Colyer. “Now we know that if someone comes in early, their chance of surviving a heart attack and living a full and productive life afterwards is very good.”
Don’t Be Reluctant to Seek Help
The most important thing to remember is that any time you’re concerned about chest discomfort, you shouldn’t hesitate to get help.
“Err on the side of caution,” said Dr. Colyer. “We want you to come into the emergency department and get checked out.”
Don’t feel embarrassed or that you’re bothering people, even if you’re unsure whether your symptoms are linked to your heart.
“That’s our job,” said Dr. Colyer about doing an evaluation. “We want to see you so we can treat a heart attack quickly, if that’s what it turned out to be.”
William Colyer, Jr., MD, FACC, a cardiologist with ProMedica Physicians Cardiology. Learn more about heart care at ProMedica.