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Recognizing the signs of a heart attack

Did you know that sudden, intense chest pain isn't the only symptom of a heart attack?

In fact, most heart attacks begin slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Sometimes the only symptom is shortness of breath, nausea or fatigue – which is why many people often dismiss it as something else, like the flu.

Cardiologist James Waters, MD, explains why time is of the essence: "A heart attack – also called a STEMI – occurs when a coronary artery becomes blocked," he says. "Heart muscle damage starts to happen because the heart is deprived of blood. We must open the blocked artery to stop the heart attack; we do that by performing emergency angioplasty, also known as primary angioplasty."

Angioplasty involves temporarily inserting and inflating a tiny balloon where the artery is clogged to widen it and restore blood flow to the heart. Door-to-balloon (DTB) time is the time from when a patient enters the Emergency Department to when the angioplasty balloon is inflated, opening the blocked artery.

"DTB times of 90 minutes or less lead to significantly improved patient outcomes," Dr. Waters notes. "Here at Lowell General Hospital, our average DTB time was 57 minutes for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2013, and 95% of our STEMI patients receive angioplasty in under 90 minutes."

This underscores the importance of calling 9-1-1 right away if you suspect you or a loved one is having a heart attack.

"EMTs and paramedics can activate the angioplasty team as they stabilize and transport the patient to the Emergency Department (ED)," Dr. Waters says. "The ED staff rapidly diagnoses a heart attack and
starts life-saving medications, then our cardiac catheterization lab team is available to provide primary angioplasty around the clock, every day of the year.

"Your risk of a heart attack increases if you smoke, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, family history of heart disease, stress and inflammation," he adds. "Your awareness of these risks as well as knowing the signs of a heart attack can lead to seeking medical attention that can
dramatically save your life."

Unfortunately, too many people wait too long before getting help, risking damage to their hearts and
even death.

Play it safe – recognize these signs that a heart attack could be happening:

  • Discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that comes and goes; it can feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea/vomiting, breaking out in a cold sweat, lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • A sense of impending doom

Notably, women are more likely than men to experience symptoms other than chest pain or discomfort.

Even if you're not sure it's a heart attack, don't wait more than five minutes to call 9-1-1. It's the fastest, safest way to get treatment that could save your life.

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