A heart attack, medically referred to as a myocardial infarction (abbreviated MI) is a complicated medical emergency that occurs when blood supply to the heart is cut off suddenly. ‘Myo’ refers to muscle, while ‘cardial’ means to do with the heart. An infarction on the other hand, refers to the death of tissue owing to a lack of blood supply. The usual cause of this is a blood clot.
This is a medical emergency because the lack of blood in the heart causes damage to the cells in the heart muscle with potentially life-threatening effects. For anyone with coronary artery disease, the risk of a heart attack is increased. This is because this condition causes the lumen of the artery to narrow, thus interrupting the flow of blood. The narrow arterial diameter allows for the formation of plaque deposits which are hard on the external part and soft on the inside.
This in itself, poses a great risk because as blood flow is interrupted, platelets crowd around the plaque resulting in blood clots. This may go unnoticed for a period of time, but if a clot is big enough and blocks the coronary artery, then the heart muscle is starved of oxygen. This causes permanent damage, and this is what is known as a heart attack.
Needless to say, a heart attack is a confusing and traumatic experience, both for the affected and for the people around. Add to this the fact that life after a heart attack is not a walk in the park and it is easy to see why the thought of it is frightening. Like other wounds on different muscles, the wound on the heart’s muscle heals and forms a scar. This not only impacts the pumping action of the heart, it also affects the body’s normal function. For this reason, it helps to know what warning signs accompany an impending heart attack and what to do in such an event.
NOTE: If you think you are having a heart attack, or experience one, or a combination of the symptoms listed below, then make sure you call 911 immediately as this is a medical emergency.
1. Chest Discomfort and Heaviness:
This is one of the most obvious warning signs of an impending heart attack. This is often described as a form of heaviness, pain, heavy pressure and in some cases, a burning sensation.
This pain may vary in its presentation – it may manifest as a sharp pain that subsides, or a dull ache that persists. A number of cases have compared this heaviness to that of an elephant sitting on one’s chest.
This is often accompanied by heaviness of the arms and the region close to the breastbone. Another classic warning sign is the pain that seems to emanate from the left part of the body, across the arm and outwards.
Such a feeling typically lasts a couple of minutes, and may happen when you are resting or immersed in daily activities. As the leading warning sign of a heart attack, it is important to regard the pain with the seriousness it deserves. Seek medical attention immediately because even a few minutes make a difference in the case of a heart attack.
2. Stomach Pains and Discomfort – Usually Alongside Heartburn, Nausea and Indigestion:
While you may experience stomach pains and discomfort for a myriad of reasons, these have been listed as some of the symptoms of a heart attack. The presence of a plaque in the coronary artery causes a clot to form with ease as mentioned above.
This clot is what causes the characteristic nausea that some heart attack survivors experience. For some, the heartburn feeling is often compared to that of choking. Perhaps the most unnerving aspect about this range of symptoms is that it is easy to dismiss to a stomach flu or bad food, yet could be a warning sign of a major heart attack.
The key to managing this is to understand that if symptoms last longer than half an hour, are accompanied by any of the other warning signs in this list, or you have a history of heart problems, then it is important to get checked right away.
3. Dizziness and Light Headedness:
There are many factors that can contribute to feeling dizzy and light headed but just for a moment. This could be due to low energy levels, inadequate rest or even something as simple as getting up too quickly. However, if you suddenly feel dizzy or find yourself grasping for breath in what is a perfectly normal day, then you want to get checked right away.
This is because it could be a warning sign that the blood pressure has dropped significantly because the damaged heart muscle cannot pump blood as it should. This abrupt weakness should not be dismissed because it is one of the warning signs associated with heart attacks.
It is important to note that in line with this, some cases may present sweating for absolutely no obvious reason – not a workout or a hot day. Breaking into a cold sweat, especially when accompanied by any of these other warning signs, means there is a need to get help immediately.
4. Anxiety, Fatigue and Feeling ‘Off’:
Many people who have suffered heart attacks have reported experiencing anxiety attacks prior to the attack. Increased tension is often a precursor for this heart condition, often alongside a feeling of hopelessness and despair. In a number of cases, you may experience extreme exhaustion and fatigue, particularly after doing something which you often did in the past with no problem whatsoever.
These may include simple tasks such as taking the staircase, carrying shopping from the car or even playing with your children. It may seem insignificant, but these subtle signs may be symptoms of a heart attack. Whilst it is possible to experience the fatigue following tedious tasks, when this happens for no apparent reason, and lasts for days at a time, then it deserves attention immediately.
It is also important to note that this is one of the symptoms that is easy to brush off as just another lazy day, yet it is important to visit the emergency room immediately to rule out the possibility of myocardial infarction.
5. A Cough that will not go Away:
For the most part, a cough is not a sign of trouble with the heart organ. But if you are at risk of heart disease, or have experienced a heart condition before, then it becomes important to pay attention to the likelihood of a heart attack. One of the most discerning characteristics of such a cough is if it produces a pink or whitish mucus.
This is crucial because such mucus production could be the result of a heart that cannot meet the body’s demands, thus resulting in blood in the lungs. When one coughs in such a scenario, the blood mixes with mucus resulting in a pinkish output. Always get such a cough checked and let your doctor find out the underlying cause of the cough.
Other warning signs that have been linked to a heart attack include unusual snoring habits which could indicate brief moments when you stop breathing (thus placing additional strain on the heart), pain that radiates in the left jaw, pressure in the throat area and irregular, rapid heartbeats. At the first sign of these warning signs, call 911 immediately,.
Waiting for a longer period of time may increase the damage to the heart and decrease the chances of survival. Remember, these warning signs may occur separately or in varied combination. In the event of a heart attack, diagnostic techniques and treatment options are available to limit heart muscle damage and aid in quick recovery.