“I woke up one morning with a kind of thump in my chest and a slight hurting in both arms. Thinking it was arthritis, I got up and started flexing my fingers and arms, but the pain just got deeper…I knew something was wrong, but it never dawned on me that I was having a heart attack.”
A heart attack is a frightening event. However, if you learn the signs of a heart attack and what steps to take, you can save a life—perhaps your own.
During a heart attack, a clot blocks the flow of blood to the heart. Heart muscle begins to die. The more time that passes without treatment, the greater the damage.
Fortunately, clot-busting drugs and other artery-opening treatments can stop a heart attack in its tracks. Given immediately after symptoms begin, these treatments can prevent or limit damage to the heart. The sooner they are started, the more good they will do—and the greater the chances are of a full recovery. To be most effective, these treatments need to be given within 1 hour of the start of heart attack symptoms.
Most people having a heart attack wait too long to seek medical help, and that can be a fatal mistake. People often take a wait-and see approach, delaying because they:
As a result, most heart attack victims wait 2 or more hours after their symptoms begin before they seek medical help. This delay can result in death or permanent heart damage— damage that can greatly reduce their ability to do everyday activities.
Many people think a heart attack is sudden and intense, like a “movie” heart attack, where a person clutches his or her chest and
falls over. The truth is that many heart attacks start slowly, as mild pain or discomfort. Someone who feels such a symptom may not be sure what is wrong. Symptoms may even come and go. Even people who have had a heart attack may not recognize the symptoms, because the next attack can have entirely different ones.
The warning signs of a heart attack are given on the following page. Learn them, but also remember: Even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, you should still have it checked out.
Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
Can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
Often comes along with chest discomfort.But it also can occur before the chest discomfort.
May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness.
Many people think that heart attacks are mostly a “man’s problem,” yet heart disease is actually the number one killer of both men and women in the United States.
In men, the risk for heart attack increases after age 45. In women, heart attacks are more likely to occur after menopause (usually, after about age 50). Besides age, factors that increase the risk for a heart attack include:
If you have one or more of these factors, see your health care provider to find out how to reduce your risk of having a heart attack.
Make a plan now for what you would do if a heart attack should happen. It will save time and could help save your life or someone else’s. To plan ahead:
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