Key to Surviving a Heart Attack: Acting on Early Symptoms

By: Dr. Chikako Ono, Board Certified Cardiologist

More than a million Americans suffer a heart attack each year—and nearly twenty percent of them die, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

Unfortunately, many Americans are not familiar with the early symptoms of a heart attack—knowledge that could spur them to seek treatment earlier, minimizing heart damage and saving lives. That’s why Southampton Memorial Hospital has launched a campaign to increase awareness of heart attack warning signs.

“A heart attack rarely happens without warning, so it is possible to identify the signals and act in time,” explains Dr. Ono, SMH Physician.  “It’s that initial confusion about symptoms that often causes people to delay seeking treatment, which is what our campaign is designed to reverse.”

Southampton Memorial Hospital’s ER and treats more than 13,000 of patients each year, giving high priority to those who are experiencing heart attack symptoms. Because early treatment is critical, the hospital’s ER staff can provide clot-busting medications to dissolve clots quickly.

“We see many patients in our ED who are suffering heart attacks,” says Dr. Ono.  “We know we can save lives and minimize heart-muscle damage if we can get people to seek help early, but it’s crucial they don’t wait because some treatments—like thrombolytics (clot-busting drugs)—are most effective within the first hour.”

When it comes to a heart attack, there are three educational components that will save lives: know your risk factors, recognize “triggers”, and understand the early signs and symptoms. 

Risk factors include high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, poor nutrition, stress and a family history of heart disease. 

Triggers are situations that can make a heart attack more likely for people with risk factors, and include lack of sleep, overeating, stress or unusually heavy exercise. 

Early signs and symptoms include:

  • Chest discomfort, such as uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain
  • Pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
  • Cold sweat, nausea or light headedness 

Additional heart attack symptoms include a weak feeling, sudden dizziness, a pounding heart, a feeling of impending doom, fatigue, indigestion, and nausea and vomiting.

Notably, women and men often experience different heart attack symptoms.  The National Institutes of Health reports that only half of women who have heart attacks have accompanying chest pain. However, they are likely to report fatigue, indigestion and sleep disturbances. Women who experience these non-traditional symptoms often do not identify them as a heart attack and delay seeking medical attention – decreasing their chances for preventing, or surviving, the attack.

If you or a loved experiences any of these warning signs, even if you don’t have any risk factors for heart disease, it’s important to act quickly and dial 9-1-1.