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Is It a Heart Attack?

Thanh Nguyen, DO News

February is American Heart Month, so you’ll soon see a lot of messages about taking care of your heart. If you consider yourself relatively healthy, you may be tempted to let this information just pass by, without paying a lot of attention to it.

The reality is that no one is 100 percent immune from heart health issues, including heart attack. For that reason, it’s critically important to know when and how to react to heart attack symptoms.

There is a saying in health care: “Time is myocardium,” or “time is muscle.” That means the longer you wait to get help for a heart attack, the more your heart muscle will likely suffer damage. Heart muscle doesn’t grow back; once it’s dead, it’s dead forever.

That’s why you should never wait to see if your symptoms get better—or worse. You’ll have the best possible chance of saving your heart’s muscle tissue when you get care right away from a hospital that is specifically equipped to handle heart attack emergencies.

For instance, Simi Valley Hospital has a cardiac catheterization lab staffed and equipped to provide immediate care to stop a heart attack in progress and, when needed, to insert a device called a stent that helps to keep the blood vessel open. That’s the type of care you should look for in a hospital.

You’ve likely heard that you should never drive yourself to the hospital if you feel like you’re experiencing a heart attack. There are several good reasons for this, the most important of which goes back to that saying, “time is muscle.” You may think you’re saving time by driving to the hospital on your own or having someone else drive you there. The truth is, you’ll save the most time by calling 911 and waiting the very few minutes it takes for an ambulance to come.

Remember this: The EMS professionals who arrive with the ambulance will start providing care to you immediately, even before they head to the hospital with you. They’ll be in touch with the hospital the entire time, and you’ll get there much faster—and more safely—than if you or someone else drives you in a private car.

So how do you know when it’s time to call for help? That’s a difficult question to answer because every person experiences heart attack in a slightly different way. However, here are a few observations about heart attack symptoms for you to consider:

  • The classic description of “chest pain” is a bit of a misnomer. A heart attack typically won’t feel like a punch in the chest or the type of pain you’d feel with a toothache. Most people describe it as a feeling of pressure, like there is a tight band around their chest or someone is sitting on their chest.
  • The pressure in the chest is often accompanied by pain that begins in the jaw and travels down the arm. The movement of the pain seems to be an important distinction for heart attack.
  • Other key indicators for heart attack are shortness of breath and sweating.
  • Some people mistake a heart attack for indigestion or other gastrointestinal problem. The important point to remember is that stomach symptoms typically don’t cause a person to sweat. So if you’re sweating and feeling pain in your jaw and/or arm, it’s probably time to call 911 instead of taking another dose of antacid.
  • Women often experience heart attack in a different way than men do.

The bottom line is this: Pay attention to what is normal for your body and what isn’t. If you start experiencing symptoms that are different from what you would expect, seek help immediately.

Ultimately, the best heart attack is the one that never happens. Even a relatively minor heart attack causes damage to your heart muscle, so it’s important to do the things that help to keep your heart healthy: eat right, exercise and get treatment for high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and other factors that contribute to heart disease. No one can guarantee zero risk for heart disease, but your doctor—and your daily attention to his or her recommendations—can help to keep heart disease at bay.

Thanh Nguyen, DO, is an interventional cardiologist in Simi Valley. He is a member of the Adventist Health Physicians Network and the medical staff at Simi Valley Hospital.