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Recognizing the Signs of a Heart Attack

by Jeremy Holcombe

It’s estimated that every year, 735,000 people in the United States have a heart attack. That’s approximately one every 43 seconds.  What’s more, almost half of those people don’t realize that they’re having one at the time. The longer it takes for them to recognize it, the longer it takes for them to get treatment. And the longer it takes for them to get treatment, the more damage is done to the heart.

Therefore, it’s in your best interest to be able to recognize the signs of a heart attack and act immediately if you spot them, either in yourself or in a loved one. Here are some of the signs to look for.

  1. Chest Pains. This is the most common symptom of a heart attack. But how can you distinguish those chest pains from ordinary discomfort that’s irritating but ultimately harmless? If the pain lasts for more than a few minutes, that’s a significant warning sign. Or if it leaves for a while but then comes back. The pain can manifest itself as a squeezing of the heart, as uncomfortable pressure, or a feeling of fullness.
  2. Other Upper Body Pain. Sometimes the pain doesn’t hit the chest first. This is where it becomes more difficult to recognize. You may feel pain in your arm, particularly in your left arm. There may also be pain in your back, neck, or jaw. Sometimes the pain spreads to these areas from the chest, but sometimes it begins in these other areas, so be aware.
  3. Swelling and Bloating. If your heart isn’t pumping blood properly, it can cause a traffic jam in your veins. The blood builds up, causing your feet, ankles, or legs to swell and bloat. Heart problems can also interfere with kidney functions, which further causes bloating, as the body struggles to expel water and sodium.
  4. Nausea or Stomach Pain. This one is easy to miss, because it could be caused by any number of less serious issues. You don’t want to call 911 to report a heart attack, only to find out that you were merely suffering indigestion. Be aware, though, that this is one of the symptoms. If you’re at risk for heart problems and find yourself suffering serious nausea, then don’t be afraid to talk to a doctor, just to be sure.
  5. Cold Sweats. Again, there are plenty of perfectly innocent things that can cause this. But be aware that it can also be a symptom of a heart attack. If you experience it along with some of the other symptoms, call 911, or have a loved one bring you to the Emergency Room to get checked out.

If you are having a heart attack, or suspect you might be, what should you do? The main thing is to act quickly. As soon as you begin to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack, call 911. Don’t worry about crying wolf. It’s better to call and have it be a false alarm than to wait and have the damage be exacerbated.

You could also have someone drive you to the emergency room, but you’ll generally be treated more quickly if you arrive in an ambulance—plus, EMTs can provide preliminary treatment on the way. Whatever you do, though, don’t try to drive yourself.

While you’re waiting for the ambulance, it can help to chew and swallow an aspirin. If you’ve had heart problems before, and your doctor gave you nitroglycerin, use that instead—but only after you’ve called 911.

A heart attack can be a scary thing, but if you stay alert and act quickly, you maximize your chances of making a full recovery.

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