You asked: What does a heart attack feel like?
While this may seem like there should be a simple answer that everyone should be very familiar with, the truth is that heart attacks come in all shapes and sizes. To start, it’s important to know what’s actually going on in the heart when a heart attack happens, then to know the typical symptoms, and then go over some of the symptoms that might not be as classic, but are equally as important for certain groups of people.
Simply put, a heart attack is what we call it when part of the heart’s muscle isn’t getting the blood flow it needs to function and survive properly. This is typically when one of the 3 main arteries of the heart becomes blocked by cholesterol, inflammation, and clotting blood. When this happens, the heart muscle can’t function properly and begins to die if blood flow is not restored. This lack of sufficient blood supply is what can result in symptoms. This is crucial for people to recognize early because as the saying goes in Cardiology, “time is muscle.”
Most people broadly know the classic symptom of a heart attack: chest pain. If you’ve seen any movies or TV shows of someone having a heart attack, it’s a good image to keep in mind. People can classically have left sided chest pain that is a pressure-like sensation radiating to the left shoulder and jaw, also associated with sweating. It’s true that a good number of people do present like this. Also interesting to know is that most heart attacks happen during the winter months in the early morning hours when our natural stress hormones are at their peak levels each day.
Equally as important to know is that many people don’t have these typical symptoms. In certain groups of people, such as people over 65, women, people with diabetes, and people with prior heart attacks. Many research studies that looked at what types of symptoms people have before they’re diagnosed with a heart attack have shown that as many as about 40% of these specific groups of people will be having a heart attack and have no chest pain! Furthermore, some people may not even have any symptoms at all of a heart attack, but rather just present to medical attention days to weeks later with symptoms of their heart not functioning properly, or congestive heart failure. This is a scenario we call silent myocardial infarction, or a heart attack that occurs without symptoms.
People who don’t have chest pain, but do have symptoms may report feeling nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, flu-like symptoms, abdominal discomfort, fatigue, or just general malaise. It becomes tricky because these atypical symptoms, as they’re called, can also be caused by many things other than a heart attack. So how do you know how to take them seriously?
It’s always important to talk to your doctor and understand your risk factors for heart disease. Feeling great is not the same as being low risk and not knowing is not the same as being healthy. Need help? Heartbeat’s always here for you.
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