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What're the signs and symptoms of a heart attack?

A heart attack is a medical emergency and prompt treatment increases the chance for survival. If you suspect that you or someone around you is experiencing a heart attack, seek medical attention immediately. Symptoms of heart attack vary considerably, even in patients who have experienced a previous heart attack. Heart attack can occur suddenly and cause

severe, intense symptoms; however, most begin slowly and cause mild discomfort that may come and go.

The main symptom of heart attack is most commonly central chest discomfort, which is present in about 2/3 of all cases. It is often described as "intense pressure" ("like an elephant sitting on your chest") however the pressure may be mild, or felt as either a sharp or stabbing pain. The discomfort may radiate to the shoulders and/or arms (usually the left side), neck (carotid area usually) or the back and can be slight, moderate, or severe. Associated symptoms include nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, diaphoresis (excessive sweating), palpitations and dizziness. The more of these symptoms present, the more likely the diagnosis.

Some patients present with acute arrhythmia, mainly ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia, but occasionally pulseless electrical activity (PEA, formerly known as "electro-mechanical dissociation" or EMD) which can rapidly lead to death if untreated. These complications require cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Myocardial infarctions vary widely in severity. Not all heart attacks are recognized by either the people having them or, less frequently, even by well trained medical personnel. In women and patients with diabetes mellitus, the symptoms of heart attack can be vague and non-specific. Women often simply report decreased exercise tolerance and breathlessness.

Diabetics less commonly experience chest discomfort; they may have only cold sweats, nausea, pain in the arm, back, jaw, or stomach (so called "anginal equivalents"), or abdominal pain. The mechanism behind this phenomenon is thought to be polyneuropathy (peripheral nerve damage), which commonly develops in longstanding diabetics and may blunt or alter the symptoms associated with a heart attack. This results in a high incidence of "silent" heart attacks in patients with diabetes.

Even though the symptoms of a heart attack at times can be vague and mild, it is important to remember that heart attacks producing no symptoms or only mild symptoms can be just as serious and life-threatening as heart attacks that cause severe chest pain. Too often patients attribute heart attack symptoms to "indigestion," "fatigue," or "stress," and consequently delay seeking prompt medical attention. One cannot overemphasize the importance of seeking prompt medical attention in the presence of symptoms that suggest a heart attack. Early diagnosis and treatment saves lives, and delays in reaching medical assistance can be fatal. A delay in treatment can lead to permanently reduced function of the heart due to more extensive damage to the heart muscle. Death also may occur as a result of the sudden onset of arrhythmias such as ventricular fibrillation.

More information on heart attack (myocardial infarction)

What's a heart attack (myocardial infarction)? - A heart attack (myocardial infarction) is the death of heart muscle from the sudden blockage of a coronary artery by a blood clot.
What're the signs and symptoms of a heart attack? - Symptoms of a heart attack include pain and pressure in the chest, which often spread to the shoulder, arm, and neck.
What're the women's heart attack symptoms? - A woman's heart attack has more varied symptoms than a man's. Women are more likely to have nausea and pain high in the abdomen.
What're the warning signs of a heart attack? - Warning signs of a heart attack include uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing, or pain in the center of the chest, cold sweat or paleness.
What causes a heart attack? - Heart attack is caused by a lack of blood supply to the heart for an extended time period. The most common cause of heart attack is atherosclerosis.
What're the complications of a heart attack? - Complications of a heart attack include ventricular tachycardia, ventricular fibrillation, cardiogenic shock, arrhythmias, heart failure.
What're the risk factors for heart attack? - Heart attack risk factors can be devided into two groups: Inherited (or genetic) risk factors and acquired risk factors.
How is a heart attack diagnosed? - The most important factor in diagnosing and treating a heart attack is prompt medical attention. For a complete diagnosis, the medical history is vital.
What're the treatments for heart attack? - The goal of treatment for heart attack is to quickly open the blocked artery and restore blood flow to the heart muscle, a process called reperfusion.
What drugs are used to cure heart attack? - Medications used to treat heart attacks include blood vessel dilators, clot busters, beta blockers, antiarrhythmic drugs, pain relievers.
What surgeries treat heart attacks? - Surgeries to treat heart attacks include coronary angioplasty, coronary artery bypass surgery, transmyocardial revascularization, and atherectomy.
Aspirin and heart attacks - Aspirin is taken daily following a heart attack to reduce the risk of another heart attack. Aspirin reduces heart attacks and improve survival in the patients.
How to survive a heart attack? - In wilderness first aid, a possible heart attack justifies medical evacuation by the fastest available means. Heart attacks are survivable.
How to prevent a heart attack? - Heart attack can be prevented with a healthy liestyle. Daily aspirin therapy or other medical treatment help prevent heart disease and heart attack.
How to recover after a heart attack? - Following discharge from the hospital, patients continue their recovery at home. Lowering cholesterol can reduce the risk for another heart attack.
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Topics in heart disease and cardiovascular disorders

Coronary circulation disorders
Myocardium disorders
Heart valve disorders
Arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms)
Heart inflammation and infection
Congenital heart disease
Valvular disease (blood vessels disorders)
Procedures done for coronary artery disease
Devices used in cardiology
Diagnostic tests and procedures for heart diseases
Heart transplant

Featured articles on heart disease and cardiovascular disorders

Coronary artery disease
Heart attack (myocardial infarction)
Cardiac arrhythmia
Heart valve replacement
Congestive heart failure
Aortic aneurysm
Atrial fibrillation

All information is intended for reference only. Please consult your physician for accurate medical advices and treatment. Copyright 2005,, all rights reserved. Last update: July 18, 2005