Doctors call it the "Hollywood heart attack": a middle-aged man breaks into
a cold sweat, grimaces, and clutches his chest-just like in the movies. Trouble
is, in real life, heart attack symptoms don't always announce themselves so
dramatically. More often they are insidious and puzzling, such as unexplained
fatigue or abdominal discomfort, and many people wait for hours before seeking
Big mistake, doctors tell WebMD. The ability to quickly spot signs of heart
attack, angina, and stroke can be life-saving. The sooner you call 911, the
faster you can get to an emergency room for treatment. Early treatment not only
minimizes heart- and brain-tissue damage, it can save your life.
Heart disease has haunted generations of Robin Drummond's family. "I have a
family history of
heart disease on both sides," says the 55-year-old African-American and
resident of Hammond, La. "I've had uncles, aunts, and grandparents who've died
heart attacks and heart disease, and two of my mother's brothers died four
months apart. One had a heart attack in church, and four months later, one had
a heart attack in the post office."
When Drummond's father succumbed to heart disease...
But most people delay. the American Heart Association When it
comes to medical emergencies, such as heart attacks and strokes, "The weak link
in the chain of events leading to prompt and effective treatment is patient
delay in seeking care," according to a statement by the American Heart
Association published in Circulation. The result? "Only a minority of
eligible patients receive optimally timed treatment."
Symptoms of Heart Attack: Why Do People Wait?
Often, people expect the Hollywood heart attack, so they may write off
unfamiliar heart attack symptoms. For example, they may blame abdominal
discomfort on indigestion. Women may also experience very different symptoms
than men do, and fail to recognize them as signs of a heart attack.
"With some symptoms, we have a natural tendency to not act on them in
the hope that they'll just go away," says Mohamud Daya, MD, MS, an associate
professor of emergency services at Oregon Health & Science University.
Patients also delay because they fear making a fuss or feeling embarrassed
if symptoms turn out to be a false alarm, experts say.
Heart Attack Symptoms: What to Watch Out for
During a heart attack, blood flow to heart muscle is reduced or cut off,
often because a blood clot blocks an artery. When heart muscle is starved of
oxygen-rich blood, it can die.
Ideally, treatment to restore blood flow, such as angioplasty or
clot-dissolving drugs, should begin within 1 hour after symptoms begin, the AHA
says. The faster you can get to the emergency room, the better your chance of
survival. And yet, one study found that half of people with heart attack
symptoms delayed seeking help for more than 4 hours.
Familiarize yourself with these heart attack symptoms:
Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing, or pain in the center of the
chest. These symptoms can range from mild to severe, and they may come and
Discomfort in other areas, such as the neck, arms, jaw, back, or
Shortness of breath, lightheadedness, nausea, or breaking out in a cold
Women may get chest pain or discomfort, but in many cases, it's not the most
obvious symptom. Instead, they're more likely than men to have these
Nausea or indigestion
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Abdominal discomfort that may feel like indigestion
Discomfort described as pressure/ tightness or an ache in the neck,
shoulder, or upper back
In the weeks before an actual heart attack, some women may get these signs
as a warning that an artery is blocked. If you develop unexplained fatigue,
shortness of breath, or abdominal pressure that feels like indigestion, call
your doctor, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, a cardiologist and chief of Women's
Cardiac Care at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "That's the time to come
in for an evaluation."