Heart attacks are among the most serious medical emergencies a person can expect to experience in their lifetime. Also known as a myocardial infarction, a heart attack occurs when a coronary artery supplying oxygenated blood to the heart muscle itself becomes suddenly blocked. These coronary blockages are typically caused by blood clots formed in response to breaks in the fatty deposits of plaque lining the coronary arteries. As these blood clots grow within increasingly narrow coronary arteries, they can eventually reduce the flow of blood to the heart to a point where it is no longer sufficient to sustain the heart muscle, causing a heart attack.
There are several key symptoms that occur as a person is experiencing a heart attack or about to experience one. Perhaps the most important sign that a heart attack is occurring or about to occur is chest pain or discomfort. This pain or discomfort in the chest area is generally described as “squeezing” or involving intense pressure focused predominantly on the left side of the chest.
In addition to obvious pain or discomfort in the chest area, pain or discomfort centered in other areas of the body, such as the arms, the stomach, the jaw and between the shoulder blades, may also strongly indicate a heart attack. Pain or discomfort in these other areas of the body is known as referred pain. In most cases, referred pain is frequently felt running down the left arm or running up towards the left side of the jaw.
Victims of heart attacks also typically experience a noticeable shortness of breath, which may or may not be accompanied by tightness of the chest or chest discomfort. Other relatively less frequent signs of a heart attack include nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness and possibly a mental state characterized by an ominous feeling of impending doom. These less common heart attack symptoms are usually experienced more by women than by men.
Regardless of how these signs and symptoms occur, individuals experiencing any of them should waste no time seeking immediate medical attention. Additionally, while taking certain medications, such as aspirin or nitroglycerin, may be helpful, people who believe they might be experiencing a possible heart attack should always still call for an ambulance. As only a third of heart attack victims typically receive the immediate care they need, it is important to know both what to look for and what to do when a heart attack occurs.