Features May 2019 Issue

Pay Attention to Chest Pain!

It can be a symptom of significant heart trouble or heart attack.

This year, about 720,000 U.S. adults will suffer their first heart attack, and 320,000 will have another heart attack. For some, it will be fatal.

Heart attacks are caused by coronary artery disease (CAD), which limits or blocks blood flow in the arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle. CAD is caused by atherosclerosis, a process in which cholesterol, fats and white blood cells accumulate in the walls of coronary arteries, forming plaques.

Nearly half the U.S. population has CAD, so it would be wise to know the most common symptom of heart attack: chest pain.

Not Your Average Pain

womenchest

While most people know that chest pain is a symptom of heart attack, they may not recognize it when it happens. That's because the term "pain" is used broadly. It can mean a sharp, stabbing kind of pain, but more often is described as a feeling of heaviness, pressure or squeezing.

The word "chest" can be misleading, too. During a heart attack, some men experience pain in their left arm, shoulder, neck or jaw that may or may not stem from their chest.

Heart attacks in women tend to produce vague symptoms that are easily mistaken for a less-serious condition. They can include pain in the upper back or shoulder, jaw pain or pain radiating to the jaw or arm. Women may experience pressure or pain in the center of the chest, but it is less common than in men.

When to Call Your Doctor

When chest pain is caused by atherosclerosis, it is called angina. When the pain is triggered by exertion and disappears with rest, it's called stable angina. This type of predictable angina is less dangerous than angina that comes "out of the blue."

If you experience this type of angina, call your doctor. Describe the nature of the pain, what you were doing when it started, how long it lasted and what you did to make it go away. Also tell your doctor if you experienced any other symptoms in addition to chest pain.

When to Call 911

Angina that does not disappear with rest is called unstable angina, and it can evolve into a heart attack in a flash.

If your angina lasts more than 15minutes, call 911. Do not wait, and do not attempt to drive to the hospital. The paramedics will diagnose you en route and call ahead, so the emergency department is prepared to receive you. Lifesaving treatment will begin immediately to decrease your chance of suffering permanent damage from your heart attack, or even dying from it.

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