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Heart Attack Symptoms

In response to my article on the Top 3 Determinants of Heart Disease, a number of readers asked how they would know if they were having a heart attack or in danger of having one in the near future.

By definition, a heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is compromised. Without adequate oxygen and nutrients from fresh blood, heart cells are damaged and at risk of dying.

Compromised blood flow is usually due to blockages in the coronary arteries. Blockages typically develop over many years from thickening of the inner walls of arteries due to accumulation of fatty deposits and plaque. Sometimes, blockages are caused by clots that are formed when existing plaque tears.

While statistics indicate that about a third of people in developed countries will find out that they have heart disease just before they're about to die from it, for most people, there will be warning signs before a heart attack occurs.

As coronary arteries gradually develop blockages, less oxygen and nutrient delivery to the heart will manifest as shortness of breath during activities that require greater flow of blood through the heart. Jogging, walking up a flight of stairs, and even carrying heavy groceries for a fair distance may cause a feeling of being winded and having a heavy weight on the sternum.

Shortness of breath and chest tightness that occur while being physically active are the most common early warning signs of formation of blockages within coronary vessels. If you experience either of these symptoms, it would be prudent to visit your physician for an evaluation, decrease your intake of sugar and animal foods cooked at high temperatures, and increase your intake of water-rich and nutrient-rich plant foods. Appropriate exercise and stress management would also be helpful in reversing developing blockages before they become more problematic.

Unexplained sweating, nausea, vomiting, general malaise, lightheadedness, and discomfort around the jaw, neck, back, and in one or both arms can accompany chest tightness and shortness of breath when a heart attack is occurring, so if you experience any combination of these symptoms, it's best to call for an ambulance immediately.

Many people are under the impression that pain during a heart attack is of a sharp and stabbing nature. While this type of pain can occur during a heart attack, depending on the location of the heart cells that are dying from lack of blood flow, as well as how these cells happen to be innervated in the individual, the pain may be dull and diffuse, like that experienced with heartburn.

Other health conditions that can present with symptoms similar to that of a heart attack include:

  • Aortic Dissection - a tear in the inner layer of the aorta.

  • Acute Cholecystitis - inflammation in the gallblader region, usually due to a lodged gallbladder stone in the biliary tract.

  • Acute Gastritis - sudden inflammation of the lining of the stomach.

  • Acute Pericarditis - sudden inflammation of the sac that surrounds the heart.

  • Severe Anxiety

  • Asthma Attack

  • Acute Pancreatitis

  • Esophageal Spasm

  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease - a digestive disorder that affects the lower esophageal sphincter, the ring of muscle between the esophagus and stomach, thereby allowing stomach acid to come into contact with the inner walls of the esophagus.

  • Heart Arrhythmias

  • Herpes Zoster (Shingles)

  • Hypotension

  • Endocarditis - inflammation of the inner layer of the heart.

  • Pneumothorax - collapse of a lung due to leakage of air or gas into the cavity between the lungs and the chest wall.

  • Pulmonary Hypertension - increase in blood pressure in the blood vessels within the lungs, leading to shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, and swelling in the lower extremities.

  • Pulmonary Embolism - blockage of a major blood vessel within the lungs, typically by a blood clot from the lower extremities that has traveled up to the lungs via the bloodstream.

The bottom line is that the vast majority of heart attacks that occur are treatable if one makes it to a hospital in time. So it's always best to err on the side of caution with any of the symptoms described above and seek immediate medical attention. Ideally, you never want to drive yourself to a hospital if you are experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain. Please consider sharing this information with family and friends.

Related Article:

The Best and Worst Foods For Your Heart


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