The Night I Almost Died: Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of a heart attack can be the difference between living and dying. Many of you follow me on one of the multitudinous platforms from which I disseminate all of the information and knowledge I believe to valuable and essential to the lives of people. And, you most likely already know that I experienced multiple heart attacks last week — culminating in two major heart attacks last Saturday and this past Monday.
The scariest thing about this experience for me is how many times I dismissed what I was experiencing as something other than a myocardial infarction (heart attack). Each time I experienced the pain and discomfort last week, I dismissed it as a workout injury from a chess workout I did last Monday. I have trained to recognize the sign of a heart attack for the safety of my fitness clients. So, at least a part of the reason I missed was just plain denial.
I want to ensure that everyone knows the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and how to respond to the first sign. Rapid response is integral to achieving a positive outcome during a heart attack.
What Is A Heart Attack?
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is interrupted due to the presence of a blockage. The blockage (primarily in the coronary arteries) is usually the result of the buildup of cholesterol, fat, and other substances that form plaque in the arteries. When plaque builds up, it will eventually break off and form a clot. Additionally, plaque can become so thick that the artery passageway will simply become increasingly narrow.
Heart attacks can be fatal; however, the advancement in treatment and responses has reduced the mortality rate associated with heart attacks. The first few moments are crucial.
It is essential to understand that people respond to heart attacks; differently, not all of the symptoms may manifest during an episode. I have heard some people say that they felt very little pain, whereas my pain was intense.
Common heart attack signs and symptoms include:
- Pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing or aching sensation in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw or back
- Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat
- Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness
It is possible to experience a heart attack without developing any of the symptoms listed; however, the more of the common signs that you experience, the more likely you are experiencing a heart attack.
While some heart attacks have a rapid, sudden onset, people often experience symptoms for hours, days, or even weeks. Remember, the longer you delay getting treatment, the higher the risk of long-term damage or even death. It is always better to error on the side of caution that to ignore potential life-threatening signs.
When To See the Doctor
It is vital to take immediate action when you experience any signs that you may be having a heart attack. Don’t hesitate; get to an emergency room or physician’s office immediately.
- Call for emergency medical help. If you suspect that you’re having a heart attack, don’t hesitate. Immediately call 911 or your local emergency number. If you don’t have access to emergency medical services, have someone drive you to the nearest hospital.
- Drive yourself only if there are no other options. Because your condition can worsen, driving yourself puts you and others at risk.
- Take nitroglycerin, if prescribed to you by a doctor. Take it as instructed while awaiting emergency help.
- Take aspirin, if recommended. Taking aspirin during a heart attack could reduce heart damage by helping to keep your blood from clotting.
- Aspirin can interact with other medications; however, so don’t take an aspirin unless your doctor or emergency medical personnel recommend it. Don’t delay calling 911 to take an aspirin. Call for emergency help first.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and it is one of the leading causes of long-term and permanent disability. Fortunately, there are a plethora of ways to reduce the risks of experiencing a heart attack, including:
What are the heart disease risk factors that I cannot change?
- Age. Your risk of heart disease increases as you get older. Men who are age 45 and older and women age 55 and older have a higher risk.
- Gender. Some risk factors may affect heart disease risk differently in women than in men. For example, estrogen provides women some protection against heart disease, but diabetes raises the risk of heart disease more in women than in men.
- Race or ethnicity. Certain groups have higher risks than others. African Americans are more likely than whites to have heart disease, while Hispanic Americans are less likely to have it. Some Asian groups, such as East Asians, have lower rates, but South Asians have higher rates.
- Family history. You have a greater risk if you have a close family member who had heart disease at an early age.
What can I do to lower my risk of heart disease?
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce your chances of getting heart disease:
- Control your blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease. It is important to get your blood pressure checked regularly – at least once a year for most adults, and more often if you have high blood pressure. Take steps, including lifestyle changes, to prevent or control high blood pressure.
- Keep your cholesterol and triglyceride levels under control. High levels of cholesterol can clog your arteries and raise your risk of coronary artery disease and heart attack. Lifestyle changes and medicines (if needed) can lower your cholesterol. Triglycerides are another type of fat in the blood. High levels of triglycerides may also raise the risk of coronary artery disease, especially in women.
- Stay at a healthy weight. Being overweight or having obesity can increase your risk for heart disease. This is mostly because they are linked to other heart disease risk factors, including high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Controlling your weight can lower these risks.
- Eat a healthy diet. Try to limit saturated fats, foods high in sodium, and added sugars. Eat plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. The DASH diet is an example of an eating plan that can help you to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, two things that can lower your risk of heart disease.
- Get regular exercise. Exercise has many benefits, including strengthening your heart and improving your circulation. It can also help you maintain a healthy weight and lower cholesterol and blood pressure. All of these can reduce your risk of heart disease.
- Limit alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure. It also adds extra calories, which may cause weight gain. Both of those increase your risk of heart disease. Men should have no more than two alcoholic drinks per day, and women should not have more than one.
- Don’t smoke. Cigarette smoking raises your blood pressure and puts you at higher risk for heart attack and stroke. If you do not smoke, do not start. If you do smoke, quitting will lower your risk of heart disease. You can talk with your health care provider for help in finding the best way for you to stop.
- Manage stress. Stress is linked to heart disease in many ways. It can raise your blood pressure. Extreme stress can be a “trigger” for a heart attack. Also, some common forms of coping with stress, such as overeating, heavy drinking, and smoking, are bad for your heart. Some ways to help manage your stress include exercise, listening to music, focusing on something calm or peaceful, and meditating.
- Manage diabetes. Having diabetes doubles your risk of diabetic heart disease. That is because, over time, high blood sugar from diabetes can damage your blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart and blood vessels. So, it is crucial to get tested for diabetes, and if you have it, keep it under control.
- Make sure that you get enough sleep. If you don’t get enough sleep, you raise your risk of high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. Those three things can increase your risk of heart disease. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Make sure that you have good sleep habits. If you have frequent sleep problems, contact your health care provider. One problem, sleep apnea, causes people to stop breathing (briefly) many times during sleep abruptly. These interruptions interfere with your ability to get a good rest and can raise your risk of heart disease. If you think you might have it, ask your doctor about having a sleep study. And if you do have sleep apnea, make sure that you get treatment for it.
- Healthy Body, Happy Heart: Improve Your Heart Health (National Institutes of Health)Also in Spanish
- Healthy Recipes (National Library of Medicine)Also in Spanish
- Lifestyle Changes for Heart Attack Prevention (American Heart Association)
- Physical Activity and Your Heart (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)Also in Spanish
- Prevention (Department of Health and Human Services)
- Prevention: What You Can Do (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Your Guide to a Healthy Heart (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) – PDF
- Your Guide to Physical Activity and Your Heart (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) – PDF
Diagnosis and Tests
- Cholesterol Levels (National Library of Medicine)Also in Spanish
- Heart Health Tests: MedlinePlus Health Topic (National Library of Medicine)Also in Spanish
- Heart-Health Screenings (American Heart Association)
- hs-CRP Test (American Association for Clinical Chemistry)
- Screening for Peripheral Artery Disease and Cardiovascular Disease Risk Assessment with Ankle Brachial Index in Adults (U.S. Preventive Services Task Force) – PDF
Prevention and Risk Factors
- Cardiac Risk Assessment (American Association for Clinical Chemistry)
- Heart Disease Risk Factors You Can’t Control (Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health)
Medline Plus (2020)
While there are certain factors that you have no control over, such as age and genetic predisposition, most of the factors that influence your risk of experiencing a heart attack are within your control. It is your responsibility to invest in yourself by being more active and choosing healthy eating habits. Remember, the more stress you place on your heart, the higher the risk of you having a heart attack.
The purpose of this article is two-fold: 1. To help you know and recognize the signs of a heart attack to give you or a loved one a head start to getting treatment in the case of a heart attack. 2. To encourage you to adopt a lifestyle that will lower your risk of having a heart attack in the first place. The question is, “what will you do with this information?” The choice is yours. ~ Rick Wallace, Ph.D., Psy.D.