Only 27 percent of the people surveyed know the typical heart attack symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you're having chest pain, you may not have time to look up the symptoms before it's too late. Here is what you need to know about heart attacks, chest pain and how to tell when it's time to dial 911.
Anatomy of a Heart Attack
A heart attack, or cardiac arrest, is your heart telling you that it's not getting enough blood to the heart muscle. Special blood vessels, called coronary arteries, feed the heart muscle and keep it healthy. Should these vessels become partially or completely blocked, the heart becomes starved of oxygen and nutrients. Cells in the heart muscle begin to die and the heart starts pumping erratically. This reduces blood flow to the rest of your body, including your brain. When the brain is deprived of blood and oxygen, you'll pass out. If this isn't reversed, the result is terminal.
How a Heart Attack is Triggered
If your heart doctor has told you that you have one or more partially blocked coronary arteries, you may have no symptoms while resting. Physical work or exercise and stress can make your heart work harder. Under these conditions, the heart muscle needs more blood and oxygen which the blocked arteries can't provide. The muscle becomes exhausted and produces the chest pain characteristic of a heart attack.
Heart Attack Symptoms
These are the typical symptoms you'll see in a person having a heart attack.
Pressure and pain in the chest - This is described as a tightness and dull pain in the chest. Some people experience burning in their chest along with the tightness.
Pain radiating out from the chest - Pain is centralized in the heart but will extend out into your neck, back and left arm. Your left arm may feel numb, as well.
Pain that fluctuates - This pain is not constant and will often become worse, then improve and continue this cycle several times as it ebbs and flows.
Chest Pain and Angina
If you have pain in your chest but none of the other symptoms, you may be experiencing angina. This is a warning sign that you heart isn't getting enough oxygen, but the pain subsides as you rest and your heart rate goes down. In a heart attack, the pain doesn't go away.
The heart specialists will determine the extent of blockage of your coronary arteries and offer medication or surgical intervention to clear the vessels. They can also prescribe nitroglycerin tablets in case you do experience angina. When placed under the tongue, this causes the coronary arteries to contract. This sends more blood to the heart muscle and stops the pain.
Anytime you experience chest pain, it's an emergency and time to call 911. Once you've called for help, make yourself sit quietly and let your heart rate drop. If the pain goes away, you still need to visit the emergency room for tests to determine if there is any damage to the heart muscle. If the pain persists, the paramedics will help you to be comfortable as they take you to see the heart team in the emergency room.