Know the Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

Tanya English was physically fit and led an active lifestyle. Having a heart attack seemed an unlikely event for her. But when the warning signs were there, she knew to seek help.

Knowing the warning signs of a heart attack can make a big difference. The faster someone having a heart attack can get care, the better the outcomes, according to Dr. Linda Stronach, a BJC Medical Group cardiologist practicing at Missouri Baptist.

Only 40% of women who were having a heart attack actually thought they were, as many women have symptoms other than pain in their chest.

Time is muscle, and the faster we can improve blood flow to the impaired heart muscle, the better the outcome for the patient,” Dr. Stronach said.

Men and women experience similar warning signs of a heart attack, Dr. Stronach said. “The most common symptoms are chest discomfort or pain; but women are more likely to have other symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.”

Subtle Warning Signs

Heart Attack Warning Signs in Women

  • Pain or pressure in the chest, upper back, jaw or neck
  • Shortness of breath
  • Indigestion
  • Flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting or cold sweats
  • Unexplained weakness or fatigue
  • Feelings of anxiety, loss of appetite or malaise
  • Sense of impending doom or a feeling that “something isn’t right”

Even though heart disease, including heart attack, remains the leading cause of death in women, women often overlook warning signs and symptoms, thinking they are less life-threatening conditions. Unfortunately, even if the signs are subtle, the consequences of a heart attack can be fatal.

Tanya almost overlooked the signs. While exercising, she felt discomfort in her upper chest but felt better after resting. That evening, she experienced a similar sensation after eating pizza with peppers but dismissed it as heartburn.

“I didn’t think anything was wrong with my heart because I’m healthy and don’t have a family history of heart disease,” Tanya said.  “Plus, I was able to walk and talk without difficulty during the episodes.”

The next day, however, Tanya’s chest discomfort returned and became more intense with arm and shoulder pain.

“I knew that I had to go to the emergency room,” she said. 

Call 9-1-1

Dr. Stronach stresses the importance of calling 9-1-1 if a heart attack is suspected. “Paramedics can provide lifesaving measures on the way to the hospital and alert the emergency room so that the teams are ready to act.”

When a heart attack is identified, the staff in the Emergency Department and cardiologists on the cardiac catheterization team at Missouri Baptist Medical Center work closely together to make sure patients are treated as quickly as possible.

In the case of a severe heart attack, patients may receive emergency treatment in the catheterization lab to open the blocked artery. The Cardiac Cath lab at MoBap uses the latest diagnostic imaging equipment to provide detailed imagery of the heart to determine the need for further treatment.

“If a patient is experiencing a smaller heart attack, we can often stabilize them with medication first before scheduling a cardiac catheterization,” Dr. Stronach said.

An Unexpected Diagnosis

In Tanya’s case, the emergency room team performed an electrocardiogram (EKG) and blood work that confirmed she had a small heart attack. She was admitted to the advanced cardiac care unit for further testing, observation and treatment.

Tanya met with Dr. Stronach, who explained that she suspected Tanya suffered a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), an  uncommon condition that occurs when a tear forms in one of the heart’s blood vessels.

To check Tanya’s heart and to help plan her treatment, structural heart cardiologist Dr. Gus Theodos performed a cardiac catheterization the next day.

During this procedure, he gently advanced a catheter to Tanya’s heart through a vessel in her arm. The catheterization found adequate blood flow to her heart with no blockages, and stenting wasn’t needed.

Getting Back to Normal Life

A day after the procedure, Tanya was placed on a medication regimen and discharged home. She participated in cardiac rehabilitation and continues to follow up with Dr. Stronach. 

Looking back on her experience, Tanya feels fortunate. “Don’t ignore symptoms,” she advised. “I never thought I’d have a heart attack.” 

Dr. Stronach echoes Tanya’s advice. “If something doesn’t feel right, contact your medical provider and seek help. Discounting or ignoring warning signs and symptoms is a risk that is too great to take.” 

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