Heart attacks are common, according to David Warren, the emergency department director for M Health Fairview Lakes. He said on average the hospital sees eight patients per day who come in with symptoms of a heart attack.
A heart attack typically begins due to blockages of the blood flow to the heart through the buildup of fat, cholesterol or plaque.
“Over time, the blockages can build up so that the blood flow through vessels gets to a point where it causes a severe blockage and oxygen and blood flow (are) cut off from the heart,” Warren said. That is why it’s imperative, Warren said, to maintain a healthy lifestyle by maintaining a healthy diet, exercise regimen, and avoiding tobacco use.
When those blockages occur, the symptoms of a heart attack can vary from person to person.
“Most commonly, what we’ll have is a severe chest pressure located in center of your chest feeling like an elephant is sitting on it,” Warren said. That feeling is an unrelenting chest pressure located in center of chest, and Warren said it’s not uncommon for the symptom to momentarily go away only to return.
Other symptoms can initially appear as something else, such as pain in upper back, shoulders and neck area, which can radiate and extend toward the jaw or stomach; shortness of breath while doing regular activities, especially if you are “feeling winded, but it used to not cause such an issue,” according to Warren; nausea or vomiting; lightheadedness; sweating or clamminess; and a sense of anxiety or impending doom.
Those atypical symptoms above can present in both male and female patients, but it’s more common for a woman to experience those symptoms.
Getting evaluated by a physician immediately is key, Warren said.
“Eighty percent of damage to [the] heart will occur in first two hours, so seeking immediate evaluation is the most important component. Even if patients are wrong, or those atypical symptoms are not related to the heart, … it’s much better than long-term heart damage, which can lead to congestive heart failure,” Warren said.
Warren explained once a patient comes in, the patient will be evaluated by a multiple-person team, which will include an initial screening with an EKG, or electrocardiogram, by placing stickers onto an individual’s chest, arms, and legs. The device traces how the heart is conducting electrical activity throughout the body, and it helps physicians determine if there is a specific type of blockage that requires immediate attention. If nothing shows up on the EKG, doctors look to a blood test for signs of a “silent” heart attack.
“We see these show up in the blood tests, but not on the EKG,” Warren said. “It’s a heart enzyme, that helps determine if there has been any damage to the heart muscle. If that’s the case, we start blood thinning medication.”
If a blockage shows up on the EKG, the patient will be transferred to a catheterization lab, where a doctor will perform a procedure called an angiogram. The angiogram doesn’t require full sedation and is a simple procedure in which a needle and wire are inserted through an arm vessel or groin vessel to take a look at vessels through the heart. Patients ingest a dye color so physicians can see if there is a blockage, and if there is, they can insert a stent, which can sweep out blockages and debris, and then act as a spring to prop open the vessel permanently. Typically patients will also be put on blood thinning medication, as well.
“If any individual is experiencing these symptoms, call 911 and seek an ambulance right away,” Warren advised. “The sooner you get help and sooner you get treatment and conditions, the better symptoms are for a complete recovery.”