Did you know that you can have a heart attack without realising it? Or that it is possible for your heart to heal on its own after treatment?
Here, we explain all the facts you need to know about heart attacks, as well as the crucial symptoms to look out for – from the obvious (eg. chest pain) to the less obvious (eg. prolonged fatigue).
If you have a heart condition and want to understand your risk of getting a heart attack, speak to a doctor.
What is a heart attack?
When the blood supply that sustains the heart is cut off, the heart muscle begins to die. This is known as a heart attack, and it is a medical emergency that needs to be treated right away.
If you have coronary artery disease, the arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to your heart become narrow. A build-up of cholesterol or fatty matter, calcium and protein forms plaque in the arteries. The plaque may then rupture, creating blood clots which block the artery and starve the heart of the oxygen it needs to survive. More rarely, an artery may spasm or narrow and restrict blood flow.
So, what does a heart attack feel like?
Contrary to what you see in the movies, not all heart attacks are sudden and intense. The symptoms may actually seem insignificant, or build gradually over time. They may also present themselves differently in men and women.
Common symptoms for both genders include:
- Pain, pressure or a heavy feeling in the chest, arm or upper stomach area
- Pain that radiates to the arm, back, jaw or throat
- Choking sensation
- Nausea or vomiting
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
Symptoms that are more common in women include:
- Feeling of indigestion
- Pain between the shoulder blades
- Sense of impending doom
More rarely, a heart attack does not cause any obvious symptoms. In fact, approximately 15% of patients have no idea they are having a heart attack. This is more common in the elderly and people with diabetes. Rather than causing traditional symptoms, the heart attack may simply feel like a long bout of the flu, a chest strain or extreme tiredness.
If you are concerned about ongoing or unexplained symptoms, consult a doctor.
Am I at risk of a heart attack?
There are several factors that may increase your risk of a heart attack. Some of them – like age, sex, family history and race – are beyond your control. But there are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of having a heart attack:
- Stop smoking
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet to lower cholesterol, with plenty of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains
- Reduce stress
Your doctor can assess your cholesterol level using a simple test.
Bear in mind that your risk of having a heart attack may be higher if you are:
- Over 65 years old
- Of African descent
The risk may also be higher if you have a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity or diabetes.
Why is it so important to recognise the signs of a heart attack early?
With the right medical attention, your heart muscle will heal on its own after a heart attack. But you may be left with scar tissue around the heart that impacts the heart's pumping ability. Your heart's electrical system may also be damaged. In some cases, this can lead to irregular heart rhythms, or even heart failure. Quick treatment will help to lessen this damage.
If you've concerns about your heart health, always speak to a specialist.