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Heart Attacks: How to Handle the Unexpected

For most people who suffer a heart attack, it happens unexpectedly during the most routine or normal times. It might happen to them during the night or early on a Monday morning while they’re getting ready for work.

They suddenly feel a pain in their chest that feels like discomfort, tightness, or burning. Many people wait to see if it goes away, hoping it isn’t a heart attack. 

When it comes to heart attacks, though, there’s no time to wait. Ignoring heart attack symptoms can lead to further health problems.

Too many people spend critical time trying to self-diagnose or determine the reason for their chest pain, which has the potential to cause heart damage. While chest pain does not always indicate a heart attack, there are crucial symptoms that should not be ignored. 


Heart Attack Symptoms

Symptoms of heart attacks include: 

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness or squeezing pain in center of chest 
  • Discomfort or pain spreading beyond the chest to the shoulders, back, neck, jaw, teeth, or one or both arms, or occasionally upper abdomen 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, fainting 
  • Sweating 
  • Nausea


When to Act

If you or someone you know has been experiencing chest pain and exhibits the other listed symptoms, do not ignore it. Call 911 for emergency medical services.

In case you live in an area that does not have emergency services, have someone drive you to the hospital as soon as possible. Of course, if you’re alone without help, driving to the hospital yourself might be your only option, but doing so can put you and others in harm’s way.

Thankfully, the large majority of people will never be put in such a situation, since emergency medical services are readily available. However, if a heart attack has occurred, performing these steps of first aid can help save a life: 

  • Take an aspirin, unless you or the person having a heart attack is allergic to aspirin or has been told by a doctor never to take aspirin. 
  • Take nitroglycerin if prescribed. If your doctor has prescribed nitroglycerin for you, take it as directed if you’re having a heart attack. Don’t take it if it hasn’t been prescribed to you, as it could put you in more danger.
  • If you are with someone who has had a heart attack and they’re unconscious, perform CPR. It’s highly important to tell the 911 dispatcher if the person who’s suffered a heart attack is unconscious. If you haven’t received CPR training, the dispatcher can instruct you until help arrives. 
  • If an automated external defibrillator (AED) is immediately available and the person is unconscious, use the device by following its directions.2 



What Causes Heart Attacks?

Heart attacks can happen unexpectedly, but there are ways to help prevent them. In order to prevent a heart attack, though, it’s important to know what heart attacks are and what causes them. 

Heart attacks typically occur due to a blood clot and/or plaque that is blocking blood flow to heart muscle, which characteristically manifests itself as pressure, fullness, squeezing, or crushing pain in the chest that can last several minutes or longer.

The pain may radiate into the back, neck, jaw, shoulders, and both arms, especially in the left arm. Heart attacks are typically associated with two main causes. 


Heart Attack Types

The first is angina. Angina occurs due to fatty deposits built up in arteries that carry blood flow. Usually, angina is characterized by a sensation of tightness or pressure in the mid-chest that is usually precipitated by physical effort or stress.

The second common cause is known as aortic dissection. Aortic dissection is less common than angina, but it can be life threatening. It occurs due to a tear in the main artery of the heart, and it is often associated with a history of high blood pressure. Although these descriptions of two common causes of heart attacks are normal characteristics, many people have atypical or unusual descriptions of their symptoms. 


Taking Charge of Your Health

While heart attacks happen unexpectedly for many people, they are often triggered by things such as stress, high blood pressure, a family history of heart problems, poor diet, and lack of exercise. Since there are signs of a potential heart attack, there are ways to help prevent one.

Taking charge of your health is important, especially if you have been symptomatic of a heart attack or have a history of heart disease. Going in for regular checkups, controlling your blood pressure, checking cholesterol levels, not smoking, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating a healthy diet including fruits and vegetables can help prevent a heart attack.

There are ways to take charge of your health and prevent a heart attack, but it’s important to always seek help if you are experiencing symptoms of one.