Recognizing the Signs of a Heart Attack
Is it indigestion or something more serious?
Just about all of us experience sudden chest pain at some point in our lives. But this particular kind of pain and its related symptoms can be confusing. How can you tell if it's a bad case of heartburn … or a heart attack?
Johns Creek Chamber of Commerce President Doug Russ recently experienced his own chest pain confusion. A lifelong athlete in excellent physical condition with no family history of heart problems, Russ thought he was simply having a digestion issue when he started experiencing chest pains after physical exertion a few months ago.
"I've had an acid reflux issue for a while, so I thought it might be an upper GI kind of thing," he explains.
But the painful episodes persisted, prompting Russ to visit to both his gastroenterologist and primary care physician, who referred him to a heart specialist for testing. A nuclear stress test showed that Russ' blood flow was poor after physical exertion, so he was sent to Emory Johns Creek Hospital for a cardiac catheterization. The procedure revealed that Russ had one large blockage and a secondary smaller blockage in an artery feeding into his heart's left ventricle. Dr. Gregory Robertson, medical director of the hospital's cardiac catheterization lab, inserted two stents to improve blood flow in the artery.
Robertson says it is critical for people to be able to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack — even seemingly unrelated symptoms such as a feeling of indigestion— and go to a hospital qualified to perform percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI procedures) as soon as possible.
"Thirty years ago, people having heart attacks often died without symptom recognition and fast action to open up closed arteries," notes Robertson. "Today, patients and doctors alike know exactly what it takes to beat heart disease and are acting accordingly. The more than 90 percent of people who survive heart attacks every year because of PCI and other artery-opening procedures are living proof."
The Mayo Clinic (www.mayoclinic.com) gives the following guidelines regarding different types of chest pain:
Chest pain related to cardiac problems
In general, chest pain related to a heart attack or another heart problem is associated with one or more of the following:
- Pressure, fullness or tightness in your chest
- Crushing or searing pain that radiates to your back, neck, jaw, shoulders and arms, especially your left arm
- Pain that lasts more than a few minutes, goes away and comes back or varies in intensity
- Shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness or nausea
Chest pain related to noncardiac problems
Chest pain that isn't related to a heart problem is more often associated with:
- A burning sensation behind your breastbone (sternum)
- A sour taste or a sensation of food re-entering your mouth
- Trouble swallowing
- Pain that gets better or worse when you change your body position
- Pain that intensifies when you breathe deeply or cough
- Tenderness when you push on your chest
Many medical conditions can cause chest pain, but if you're experiencing unexplained chest pain or suspect you are having a heart attack, seek medical attention immediately. A trip to the doctor's office or emergency room could save your life — or offer welcome relief if it turns out nothing is seriously wrong.
As for Russ, he was back at work and even jogging again just a week after the stent insertion procedure. He's grateful for physicians who were able to sort out his "chest pain confusion."
"I feel great," he says. "After experiencing chest pains several times a day for months, I have none now. It's quite amazing, actually."