Heart Health

Is it a Heart Attack?

While cardiovascular disease (conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels) in general is the nation’s number one killer, most of those deaths – about 375,000 out of more than 600,000 – can be attributed to coronary artery disease.

Coronary arteries are responsible for supplying oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to your heart muscles. Over time, these can become damaged or diseased through the buildup of plaque (deposits made up of fat, cholesterol and calcium) along the artery walls. This reduced blood flow can cause chest pain and shortness of breath, but high-grade or complete blockage can lead to a heart attack.

Every 40 seconds, or about how long it took you to read to this point, someone in the United States will suffer a heart attack.

While movies may depict heart attacks as dramatically clutching your chest, it doesn’t always look or feel like that. The five main symptoms associated with a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain or the feeling of tightness, pressure or squeezing
  • Pain or discomfort in the arm or shoulder
  • Pain or discomfort in the neck, jaw or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, lightheadedness or fatigue

In addition, men and women often experience a heart attack differently. For instance, women may feel pressure or discomfort in the chest, rather than an intense pain – if they feel any unusual pains at all. To read more about how heart attack differs in women, read In Women, Heart Attacks Don’t Look Like Heart Attacks from my colleague, Catherine Dao, MD.

So, what should you do if you think you’re having a heart attack?

Call 911 – In addition to getting through Bay Area traffic more quickly, EMS can monitor or stabilize you while initiating the process of assembling the hospital staff and resources to help treat you immediately upon arrival.  

Chew aspirin – Unless you’re allergic to it, chewing and swallowing an aspirin during a heart attack can slow clotting to reduce the severity of your attack or prevent you from having multiple attacks en route to the hospital.

Take nitroglycerin (if prescribed) – If your doctor has determined that you’re at particularly high risk for heart attack and prescribed you nitroglycerin pills, now is the time to take them. Never take medication that hasn’t been prescribed to you.

If someone has a heart attack near you and they are unconscious, begin performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) immediately. If you’re unsure how to perform CPR, the 911 dispatcher can tell you what to do. Alternately, if an AED (automated external defibrillator) is available, use it by simply following the device instructions.

During a heart attack, as with any cardiovascular event, how quickly you receive care can be the difference between life and death.

As the designated cardiac receiving center for Alameda County, the Heart and Vascular Program at Washington Hospital specializes in the fast treatment of heart emergencies. This critical designation means that our team of physicians and other clinicians are ready to diagnose patients upon arrival to the Emergency Department, which results in rapid interventions. In addition to our commitment to restoring blood flow in 90 minutes or less, we work with patients and their families after treatment to rehabilitate the heart and prevent further heart attacks. Our team is ready to treat heart attack patients 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.To learn more about what makes the Heart and Vascular Program unique or cardiothoracic surgery performed at Washington Hospital, visit the hospital website.