The symptoms of a heart attack may or may not start off with a lesser intensity. Many a time, the symptoms resemble those of minor health ailments, which is the reason why people tend to overlook them very easily. In some cases, a few signs show up weeks before a heart attack occurs, which can help in its early diagnosis and prevention. However, in other cases, these signs don’t show up until a couple of days before an attack, thereby leaving fewer opportunities for any action to be taken. In addition, if the discomfort increases rapidly, it can turn into a fatal episode. This silent and unpredictable nature is the reason why there’s an alarming need for awareness about the warning signs of a heart attack.
1. Chest pain:
Chest pain, or angina pectoris, is a classic sign of a heart attack. The pain is often experienced centrally or closer to the armpit and can be easily confused with a muscle spasm. The intensity of the pain varies, depending on the severity of the attack. Some patients experience mild burning pain, while others complain of a deep, pricking or stabbing pain during an attack. Although chest pain is a common sign of a heart attack, it doesn’t occur in all cases. Doctors note that about 10% of women do not experience chest pain before or during a heart attack.
2. Pain in the jaw, neck, elbow, and back:
In some cases, the pain sensation travels to the spinal cord, where it merges with the nerve pathway, thereby extending the pain to some parts around the chest. This can be presented in the form of tightness, numbness or heaviness in the entire arm, upper back and even the jaw.
3. Shortness of breath:
People suffering from an attack often complain of difficulty in breathing. Breathlessness that occurs just before a heart attack may or may not be coupled with chest pain.
Weakness, tiredness or lightheadedness before having a heart attack is another common misleading sign. People often confuse it with general fatigue due to stress or exertion. Extreme fatigue before an attack occurs because the heart muscles run out of oxygen, thereby interrupting the blood supply to the rest of the body.
5. Cold sweat:
Clammy sweat is another sign of a heart attack that is coupled with fatigue. Sweating occurs, rather out of proportion, irrespective of the exertion level or the weather. Simple activities like walking can cause weakness with sweating. This could even be an early symptom that may be present a few days before a heart attack.
6. Sleep disturbances:
In most of these cases, sleep disturbances occur due to shortness of breath while sleeping, resulting in choking that puts extra pressure on the heart muscles. Sleep apnea may occur several weeks or even months before a heart attack occurs.
7. Nausea and vomiting:
Many heart attack survivors explain that their symptoms right before having an attack resemble indigestion. In some cases, breathlessness after minimal exertion is followed by signs of gastrointestinal discomfort, which is presented as nausea and vomiting sensation.
Please note that the above signs alone are not the only signs of a heart attack. Every patient experiences these symptoms differently, depending on their age and the severity of the attack. Further, the signs of a heart attack also vary in men and women. So, don’t just rely on these signs. The most important and alarming sign is an abrupt and extremely sudden change in how you feel. If you notice anything unusual, don’t self-treat it. Reach out for medical help immediately!
- Joseph P. Ornato and Mary M. Hand Warning Signs of a Heart attack. Circulation 11Sept 2001.
- 100 Questions and answers about heart attack and related cardiac problems by Edward K. Chung
- A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease – By Carolyn Thomas