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Are You Having a Heart Attack?

Knowing the symptoms of a heart attack and knowing what to do can save your life.

May 05, 2014  |  by Lawrence Heiskell, M.D.

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the coronary arteries in your heart become blocked for a long enough period of time that a portion of the heart muscle is starved of oxygen and becomes damaged or dies.

The most common cause of a heart attack is plaque. This plaque builds up in the walls of the coronary arteries and blood platelets stick to tears in the plaque to form a blood clot that blocks blood from flowing to the heart.

Your best defense against a heart attack is to live a healthy lifestyle. You also need to know the symptoms of a heart attack and how to respond if you think you are having one.


Not all heart attacks begin with the sudden, crushing chest pain that often is seen on television or in the movies. In one study, one-third of the patients who had heart attacks felt no chest pain.

The symptoms of a heart attack can vary from person to person. Heart attacks can start slowly and cause only mild pain or discomfort. Symptoms can be mild or more intense and sudden. Symptoms also may come and go over several hours. People who have high blood sugar may have no symptoms at all.

The most common symptom, in both men and women, is chest pain or discomfort.

Women are somewhat more likely to have shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, unusual tiredness often for days, and pain in the back, shoulders, and jaw.

Heart attacks may occur when you are resting or asleep, after a sudden increase in physical activity, or after sudden, severe emotional or physical stress.

You may feel the pain in only one part of your body, or it may move from your chest to your arms, shoulder, neck, teeth, jaw, belly area, or back. The pain can be severe or mild. The pain usually lasts longer than 20 minutes.

Symptoms of a heart attack may also go away and come back.

The following is a list of some common heart attack symptoms:

* A tight band around the chest

* Bad indigestion

* Something heavy sitting on your chest

* Squeezing or heavy pressure

* Light-headedness, dizziness

* Nausea or vomiting

* Shortness of breath

* Breaking out in a cold sweat

What to Do

If you think you are having a heart attack call 911 immediately.

While waiting for the ambulance to arrive:

Sit down and rest.

If there is someone with you, have them gather your medications or an updated list available for the paramedics.

If you have a prescription for nitroglycerin, take it as directed by your physician. Usually, you put a tablet under your tongue and let it dissolve.  Do not take nitroglycerine within 36 hours of taking erectile dysfunction drugs unless directed by your doctor as these may cause a significant drop in blood pressure and worsen your condition.

Quick Action Can Save Your Life: Call 911 

Lawrence Heiskell, MD, FACEP,FAAFP is an emergency physician and a veteran reserve police officer with the Palm Springs (Calif.) Police Department. He is the founder and medical director of the International School of Tactical Medicine

Related Article:
Heart Trouble

Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

Ima Leprechaun @ 5/5/2014 5:41 PM

Sudden death isn't always a heart attack. There are several other things that can cause what appears to be a normal person to suddenly drop dead. In my case, my blood sugar went to zero and my heart stopped and I died in the dairy section at Wal-Mart. I was lucky that standing next to me was an off duty cardiac nurse from Eglin AFB. He did CPR for 20 minutes until the arrival of EMS. EMS lost me and I was DOA at the Hospital ER which was literally around the corner. They worked on me for four hours. The EMS had put an IV in me with normal saline and D5W (Dextrose 5% in water). Once my blood sugar returned to where it needed to be my heart started all by itself. It was assumed I had a heart attack. A few days later I had a heart catheter and it showed I had the heart of a normal 35 year old which was great for me since I was 55 years old at the time. I am sure the CPR saved me considerable brain damage since when I was DOA at the hospital I was both brain dead and heart dead and had been for about 30 minutes. I was worked on at Wal-Mart for over an hour by EMS, they just couldn't get me stable enough to transport. I have some lingering brain damage but I am here. So take it for being what it is at the time and never assume.

Ima Leprechaun @ 5/5/2014 5:51 PM

The heart catheter I had showed no plaque, no blockages, no valve trouble and no damage to the heart muscle. I had never had any heart issues before or since. But my heart stopped due to having no blood sugar. I needed the CPR to keep blood flowing but everything they tried in the ER failed because I did not have a heart problem I had an electrical event. But please do the CPR because it is critical to survival.

I had performed CPR on my mother when I was a Senior in High School and it made a huge difference on her and she did have a major heart attack. It took two hours for the EMS personnel to get her stable enough to transport and we lived just 2 miles from the hospital. So CPR does save lives and a quick call on 911 puts help on the way.

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