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Recognize Heart Attack Symptoms — Then Act Immediately

Few physical crises demand more urgent action than acute heart attacks. Recognizing a heart attack’s symptoms and responding immediately can be the difference between life and death. Moreover, the time spent in seeking emergency care can profoundly affect the quality of life of a victim’s remaining years.

Ivan Salgo, MD, Associate Chief Medical Officer at Philips Patient Care and Monitoring Solutions, explains that the heart is essentially a pump — one that squeezes blood through the body over 2.5 billion times in a normal lifetime. This amazing organ contains four chambers and four valves and is comprised of a unique form of muscle tissue.

The heart is fed by a network of coronary arteries on its surface, which, when constricted or blocked, can cause either heart pain (angina) or a heart attack (myocardial infarction). Angina is chest pain that occurs in people who have coronary heart disease, usually when they're active, and can seem similar to the symptoms of a heart attack. Angina pain usually lasts for only a few minutes and goes away with rest or can be treated with nitroglycerine.

Most Common Heart Attack Symptoms

Chest pain or discomfort that doesn't go away or changes from its usual pattern (for example, occurs more often or while you're resting) can be a sign of a heart attack, during which a portion of the heart muscle dies due to lack of blood. A heart attack is typically the result of a long-standing, slowly developing constriction of coronary arteries and must be diagnosed and treated at once.

Many heart attacks involve the classic discomfort in the center or left side of the chest. The discomfort usually lasts for more than a few minutes. It can feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain. However, some patients have atypical symptoms. These can feel like heartburn or indigestion. The feeling can be mild or severe.

In addition to chest pain, upper body discomfort is another possible heart attack symptom. You may feel pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, shoulders, neck, jaw, or upper part of the stomach, above the belly button.

A third common symptom is shortness of breath. This may be your only symptom, or it may occur before or along with chest pain or discomfort. It can occur when you are resting or doing a little bit of physical activity.

Other less common symptoms may sometimes signal a heart attack and must not be ignored. These include:

  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Feeling unusually tired for no reason, sometimes for days (especially if you are a woman)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Light-headedness or sudden dizziness
  • Any sudden, new symptoms or a change in the pattern of symptoms you already have (for example, if your symptoms become stronger or last longer than usual).

All Chest Pain Should Be Checked By a Healthcare Professional

Dr. Salgo says that an adage among cardiologists is "time equals muscle."

"Every minute adds to the risk of lifelong heart failure or even death," he says, "so second-guessing can be your very last bad decision."

The power to summon help immediately can be critical when symptoms occur, particularly for those living alone. Philips Lifeline offers medical alert systems that allow people in need to summon help with the press of a button. And if the AutoAlert fall detection detects a fall, it can call for help even if you can’t or forget to1 . The Philips Lifeline Response Center will work to get you the medical attention as quickly as possible in an emergency.

So if you suspect that you or a loved one might be having a heart attack, remember:

  • Acting fast can save the life.
  • An ambulance is the best and safest way to get to the hospital. Emergency medical services personnel can check how you are doing and start life-saving medicines and other treatments right away. People who arrive by ambulance often receive faster treatment at the hospital. 

"In all heart attack symptoms, the key is to listen to your body,” says Paul Adams, Senior Director of Product Management for Philips Lifeline and a cardiothoracic nurse who practiced in the UK. “We all know what feels normal. When a symptom arises that feels seriously unusual, we need to trust our instincts and seek help. Sure, it will be inconvenient, and possibly a false alarm. But if our instincts are correct and we fail to act, the consequences can be very severe."

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