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February 1 2018

Know the signs of a heart attack: Call 911, even for subtle signs

A heart attack is an urgent message from your heart that it’s starved for oxygen. Known as acute myocardial infarction, or AMI, a heart attack occurs when a clot blocks a blood vessel feeding the heart (coronary artery). Oxygen-rich blood can’t reach a part or all of your heart.

As the tissues of the heart muscle begin to die from a lack of oxygen, your body experiences the symptoms of a heart attack. The sooner you get to the hospital; the sooner treatment can start to help save your life and your heart.

Warning signs of a heart attack

Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, burning, fullness, tightness or pain. It is often described as feeling something heavy on your chest.

Symptoms can also include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

Here are the most common symptoms of heart attack:

  • Pressure, squeezing, discomfort or pain in the chest
  • Other discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulders, arms or back
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or faintness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating

Call 911 if you or someone else might possibly be having a heart attack or health problems. Play it safe; call 911 instead of driving to the emergency department or an urgent care center.

Additional signs of a heart attack in women

Like men, women most commonly have chest pain or discomfort as a heart attack symptom. But women are somewhat more likely than men to have some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, back pain or jaw pain.

Seniors may have severe symptoms

Older people may also have atypical symptoms of heart attack. These can include loss of consciousness, weakness or confusion. A person who experiences these symptoms should be evaluated immediately. Ignoring them can lead to critical illness or death.

“Silent” heart attacks are common

Up to half of all heart attacks may not include the typical symptoms of crushing chest pain, shortness of breath and cold sweats. Instead, they may be “silent.” Symptoms of a silent heart attack are so mild they are barely noticed, if at all. They may include fatigue, upset stomach or shortness of breath when exercising.

Most silent heart attacks are discovered by accident, when the damage shows up on an EKG test.

Treatment is the same

Anyone who has a silent heart attack or a heart attack with symptoms needs medical treatment. Either type of heart attack can damage the heart. Heart attacks slow or stop the flow of blood to the heart muscle. Treatment is important because the risk for death from all causes goes up after a heart attack.

If you have had a heart attack, you may need treatment to control high blood pressure or high cholesterol. You may also need to make lifestyle changes such as eating healthier, exercising more and losing weight. Your health care provider will help you develop a plan for your health.

People who have had one heart attack are at risk for having another heart attack. Your provider may prescribe medicine such as nitroglycerin to take for chest pain. You may also need medicine to lower your heart rate and blood pressure to prevent angina and another heart attack.

Remember to take any medicines your provider has given as directed. Do not stop medication on your own.

Diabetes and heart health

If you have diabetes, high blood sugar can damage nerves in your body over time. This may keep you from feeling pain caused by a heart problem, leading to a silent heart problem. If you don’t feel symptoms, you are less able to get treatment right away. Talk to your health care provider about how to lower your risk for silent heart problems.

To learn more about the ProHealth Heart & Vascular Care team and the services offered, call 262-928-8800.


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For more than a century, ProHealth Care has been the health care leader in Waukesha County and surrounding areas, providing outstanding care across a full spectrum of services. The people of ProHealth Care strive to continuously improve the health and well-being of the community by combining skill, compassion and innovation. The ProHealth family includes ProHealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital, ProHealth Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital, ProHealth Rehabilitation Hospital of Wisconsin, ProHealth Medical Group, the UW Cancer Center at ProHealth Care, Moreland Surgery Center, ProHealth AngelsGrace Hospice, ProHealth Home Care, ProHealth West Wood Health & Fitness Center and ProHealth Regency Senior Communities. Learn more at ProHealthCare.org.