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Signs of a Heart Attack
When it didnt go away, Scott went to see Girish Sharma, MD, a Vernon cardiologist. "He hooked me up to the EKG machine in his office, looked at the readings, and said he wanted me to go to the hospital right away," Scott recalls. "He said it was a heart attack. I had absolutely no pain except for that feeling like I had to burp. Nothing in my chest, in my jaw, down my arms. I didnt feel sick."
But by acting on that single warning sign, Scott may have saved his own life. One of the arteries of his heart was blocked, restricting the flow of blood. He underwent a procedure called angioplasty to open up the artery, and a device was inserted to help keep the artery open.
Recuperating at home, Scott considers himself a lucky man. Because of his age and his good overall health, he was shocked to learn hed had a heart attack, especially because he had only one risk factor for heart disease: he was a smoker. "But Im not one now," he says emphatically.
"The most common symptom of heart disease still is chest pain that you cant explain," Dr. Sharma says. "But its not the only symptom, and some people dont get chest pain at all. Women are more likely to have just a feeling of indigestion and fatigue. Unfortunately, because the symptoms can be so vague, many people wait hours or even days before they see the doctor."
Manchester cardiologist Saqib Naseer, MD, says a feeling of indigestion what Scott Smith experienced is probably the most often ignored symptom because people do not associate it with a heart attack. "A lot of people dont seek help if they just have a feeling of what they think is indigestion," he says. "But if it feels different from what youve had before, and especially if you have other symptoms such as sweating, shortness of breath, weakness and dizziness, you should see the doctor."
In Connecticut, the state legislature recently passed a bill that requires insurance companies to pay for emergency-room visits when the person suspects he or she is having an emergency such as a heart attack even if it does turn out to be something less.
Because its easy to mistake the warning signs of a heart attack for something else and because it is crucial to catch heart problems early, before they damage the heart it is important to know the common symptoms that could mean a heart attack is going to happen. Early detection is vitally important because medication (such as "clot-busting" drugs) and procedures (such as angioplasty) are available today to treat heart disease and prevent an impending heart attack from happening.
The common warning signs of a heart attack are:
Unfortunately, in one-third of heart attacks, a persons first sign of heart disease is the heart attack itself. The remaining two-thirds, however, do have some type of symptoms prior to the heart attack. The goal, the cardiologists say, is for people to recognize those warning signs and see a doctor before the heart attack occurs.
"The symptoms of a heart attack are extremely varied," Dr. Naseer says. "The signs and laboratory tests are what the doctor sees when evaluating a patient. Its very important to explain what youre feeling when describing your symptoms to your doctor, to help with the diagnosis." Certain laboratory tests are available to screen for heart disease, especially in younger people with a strong family history of coronary artery disease.
The most common cardiovascular condition is high blood pressure, which occurs when small blood vessels become narrowed. High blood pressure can be controlled with medication, but uncontrolled high blood pressure can cause a heart attack or stroke.
The most common cause of heart attacks is atherosclerosis. This is a condition in which fatty materials build up inside an artery, causing the opening to become narrow and slowing or stopping the blood flow. A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart is cut off completely.
The major risk factors for heart disease can be divided into two categories factors that cannot be changed, and factors that can.
Risk factors that cannot be changed include:
Risk factors than can be changed include:
One measure that has been proven effective in helping to prevent heart attacks is taking aspirin daily. For most people, a single aspirin a day can keep platelets in the blood from sticking together and can prevent blood clots in the heart. Because aspirin can complicate other health problems, such as ulcers, people should seek the advice of their doctor before taking it.
"In my opinion," Dr. Sharma says, "the number one thing you can do to prevent a heart attack is to exercise, which can reduce your risk of just about any known disease in human beings. The second is to reduce your cholesterol and eat a low-fat diet. The third is to stop smoking, and the fourth is to reduce hypertension (high blood pressure). The fifth is to learn some stress management. I have seen that when people are under stress, their heart shows that it is not getting enough blood supply."
Dr. Naseer agrees. "I also stress the importance of a healthy diet and targeted nutritional supplements, such as Vitamins E and C, to lower the risk of heart disease," he says.