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Early Heart Attack Care

Each year, approximately 1.2 million Americans suffer a heart attack, and nearly one-third of these individuals die, many before they reach the hospital. People often dismiss heart attack warning signs, such as chest pain, and think they merely have heartburn or a pulled muscle. The unfortunate conclusion is that many people wait too long before getting help. We want you to recognize the early symptoms of a heart attack.

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs, in most cases, when a vessel supplying the heart muscle with blood and oxygen becomes completely blocked. The vessel has become narrowed by a slow build up of fatty deposits, made mostly of cholesterol. When a clot occurs in this narrowed vessel, it completely blocks the supply of blood to the heart muscle. That part of the muscle will begin to die if the individual does not immediately seek medical attention.

Early Heart Attack Symptoms

Not every heart attack displays the same symptoms as those we may see on the many medical TV shows we are exposed to daily. In fact, many people ignore the early signs of a heart attack, simply dismissing the more subtle symptoms because they expect the drama associated with a Hollywood episode. Unfortunately, when these early signs are ignored, we miss a “window of opportunity” to prevent the attack before any heart damage can occur.

The following signs and symptoms are ones to be aware of in yourself or in your family members:

Shortness of Breath without Exertion

Although most of us experience shortness of breath when we are exercising or expending energy outside of what we do normally, difficulty breathing when performing normal activities is an early sign that should be investigated.


The sensation of heartburn or a burning in the chest can be mapped to spicy foods and quickly discarded. This sensation can also be an early sign of a heart attack, especially if the condition becomes chronic. If you find yourself taking over-the-counter antacids on a regular basis, the underlying cause of your trouble needs to be discussed with your doctor.

Discomfort or Pain

Although we think of heart pain as pain occurring in the area of the heart, for some individuals this is not the case. People who suffered a heart attack have described their early symptoms everywhere from crushing to squeezing to pressure occurring in the chest and even other areas of the body. Shoulders, neck, and jaw are areas reportedly affected prior to a heart attack. Always seek immediate attention if you are experiencing this type of pain, even if the symptoms disappear or are only intermittent.

A Feeling of Impending Doom

Some patients describe a feeling of anxiety and fear prior to the occurrence of a heart attack. Although not usually thought of as an early symptom and certainly attributable to other matters, this “feeling” can still be an early indicator, especially when combined with any of the other symptoms listed above.

Frequent Signs of a Heart Attack

  • Chest discomfort most heart attacks involve discomfort in th center of the chest. The discomfort lasts for more than a few minutes or it may go away and come back. The discomfort may feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. This may include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath may occur with or before chest discomfort.
  • Other symptoms may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness.

Heart Attacks in Women

Heart attacks are often viewed as a man’s problem when, in fact, more women in the United States die of heart disease each year than men. Women often experience signs and symptoms that are different from those that men experience. This is because smaller arteries may be blocked in women whereas men often have blockage in the main arteries.

Heart attack signs in women sometimes go unnoticed. They include the following:

  • Pressure, fullness, squeezing pain in the center of the chest, spreading to the neck, shoulder or jaw
  • Light-headedness, fainting, sweating, nausea, or shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
  • Upper abdominal pressure or discomfort
  • Lower chest discomfort
  • Back pain
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Unusual shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

Preventing a Heart Attack

Perhaps the only thing more important than early recognition is prevention. The following risk factors have been linked to a higher incidence of heart attack and should be addressed and eliminated. If you, or someone you care about, struggles with any of these risks, talk to your doctor about ways to remove these behaviors before they have a chance to impact your health.

  • Smoking
  • Lack of Exercise
  • Obesity
  • Elevated Cholesterol
  • Stress
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Diabetes

Time is Muscle

Time Wasted is Muscle Lost

This is a familiar slogan to nurses and physicians working in the emergency department (ED) when a patient enters with chest pain indicating that a heart attack is in progress. Loss of time is equated to loss of heart muscle, resulting in less life enjoyment that depends on physical activity. The cause of the heart attack is usually a complete blockage of one of the heart vessels; complete destruction of the muscle being supplied by the vessel occurs over a six-hour period of time.

It is important to note that 85% of muscle damage takes place within the first hour. It is within this timeframe that the heart vessel needs to be opened. If time is lost and the vessel is opened after this timeframe, the benefit is much less.

The best way to stop the heart attack process is to detect the symptoms early, before damage to the heart muscle occurs. When considering whether or not to go to the hospital with chest discomfort, or chest pain, it is better to be safe than sorry.


  • 911 dispatchers are often trained to locate you quickly and assist you in early treatment options
  • In many areas, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) can diagnosis a heart attack by using an electrocardiogram (ECG) and also initiate early treatment.
  • Arriving by ambulance to the ED helps to ensure that you will not wait to be seen by a physician. Many patients who experience chest pain drive themselves, only to find that they may wait in the ED lobby until they can see a doctor.
  • EMS can radio ahead to the ED that you are on your way; this enables the ED staff to be ready for you when you arrive through the doors.
Don’t delay! Don’t take chances! If you have chest pain or other heart attack symptoms, call 911 and seek medical attention immediately.