Is it a Heart Attack or Something Else?

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The Center for Disease Control reports that nearly one in every four deaths in the United States is attributed to heart disease. Heart disease, the agency reports, is the leading cause of death, and around 735,000 United States citizens experience a heart attack every year. These staggering statistics reveal the importance of correctly identifying the initial signs and symptoms of a heart attack, receiving a correct diagnosis from your doctor and getting the right treatment as promptly as possible.


What is a Heart Attack?


Heart attacks occur when the heart isn’t getting enough oxygen, and it’s a distress signal that can cause the heart muscles to die if blood flow doesn’t get restored. Multiple conditions such as coronary heart disease and muscle spasms can lead up to heart attacks. Coronary artery spasms are frequently brought on by a person’s lifestyle. Such spasms may result from exposure to drugs like cocaine, cigarette smoke or emotional stress. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute lists out a number of controllable factors that can increase your risk of having a heart attack including smoking cigarettes, maintaining a high blood cholesterol level, being overweight, having a poor diet, lacking any physical activity and suffering from high blood pressure. Factors that you can’t control include a family history of heart problems, age and a pregnancy condition called preeclampsia.


Diagnosing a Heart Attack


There are a number of protocols and tests that help doctors correctly diagnose heart attacks. The most common signs and symptoms to look for include patient dizziness, anxiety, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea and feeling a persistent physical weakness. These signs and symptoms are not always indicative of heart attacks, so doctors may mistakenly attribute these symptoms to a condition other than a potential heart attack. A trusted doctor should always conduct a complete and full physical and order the appropriate tests to rule out a heart attack. Electrocardiogram tests are simple, painless and efficient in detecting the electrical activity of the heart. The EKG test can also detect the heart’s rhythm and beat. Signs of previous heart attacks, heart damage or symptoms of a current heart attack can be interpreted through EKG testing. Your doctor can also order blood tests to measure the level of proteins in your bloodstream. When heart muscles begin to die, proteins are released into the bloodstream. If you are currently experiencing a heart attack, then these proteins will be apparent in the ordered blood tests. Blockages in the coronary arteries can be identified through a coronary angiography test. During this type of test, special dyes and x-rays will be released into the bloodstream through a catheter. When a blockage is apparent, your doctor might recommend a coronary angioplasty, stent or another type of treatment to restore blood flow to the heart.


Failing to follow these medical protocols may mean getting sent home only to experience a life-threatening heart attack. Heart attacks should always be considered a medical emergency. If you believe you or a loved one is experiencing a heart attack, then it’s important to call 9-1-1 as soon as possible. Prompt treatment saves lives, so don’t hesitate to seek treatment even when your symptoms are atypical.


There are a number of treatments that can be started immediately without a doctor’s official heart attack diagnosis. Over-the-counter aspirin can be given that will prevent further blood clotting until you are able to reach the hospital.


Misdiagnosis of a Heart Attack


One news report published by BBC revealed that around one-third of individuals are initially given the wrong diagnosis of heart attacks. The report indicated that doctors often mistakenly expect heart attack victims to be overweight, older men, so other groups of individuals are more likely to be misdiagnosed. The UK study found that gender was one of the biggest factors that resulted in a misdiagnosis. Additional factors like atypical test findings and experiencing heart failure contributed to the likelihood of a misdiagnosed heart attack.


Statistics reveal that around 20 to 30 percent of individuals experiencing a heart attack will either have atypical symptoms or be completely asymptomatic. These individuals are much more likely to go misdiagnosed. Women, in particular, are more likely to have an atypical or asymptomatic heart attack. Some atypical symptoms to watch out for include unexplained fatigue, a feeling similar to heartburn and strange discomfort in the neck, jaw or throat area. Some individuals even experience what is called a silent heart attack. Silent heart attacks are asymptomatic and usually go unnoticed by the victim, but they still cause damage to the heart that can be revealed through testing. EKG tests, cardiac ultrasounds or echocardiograms may be recommended by your doctor to test for signs of heart damage. Victims of silent heart attacks may visit their doctor because they are experiencing a wide range of symptoms, but they are completely unaware they’ve experienced a heart attack. Ignoring signs or attributing symptoms to a different condition are both reasons that people may not realize the severity of what has happened.


Never expect a heart attack to mimic a Hollywood-style, extreme situation. While sharp pains in the chest area are very common, it’s also fairly common for victims to only experience mild discomfort or heartburn-like symptoms. The media’s portrayal of heart attacks is one reason that so many individuals do not even realize they’ve experienced one until their yearly physical check-up. Whether your heart attack is extreme or silent, the trauma will damage your heart’s muscles. Certain tests can be conducted by medical professionals to check for signs of damage around your heart. If you suspect a heart attack, then don’t delay in seeking medical treatment. If you disagree with your doctor’s initial diagnosis, then don’t be shy in requesting the appropriate tests to completely rule out the possibility of a heart attack. Misdiagnosis is a serious concern for heart attack victims, and the effects of a misdiagnosis can be devastating.


When I had my heart attack in May of 2011, I realized how fast and detrimental it could be to my life. I'm alive, thanks to my wife, who acted quickly and stood by my side as I recovered in the hospital. In my younger years, I spent a lot of time being careless. I avoided exercise and opted for fatty foods, not realizing all the damage I was causing for my future self down the line. You always think it's going to happen to the "other person" without realizing that sometimes you're going to be the person who falls victim to such a devastating and scary situation. 


Since having my heart attack, I've put an emphasis on maintaining a healthier and more active lifestyle. It's not always easy. I have a sweet tooth, get stressed easily and hate having to go outside and take a walk, but it's necessary. I don't want my family to live without me. I don't want to have to put them through that if there's something in my power I can do to help reduce the likelihood of experiencing another heart attack - or worse, another kind of disease. 


Have you suffered a heart attack? What have you done since to change up your daily habits? It's something I still struggle with. 

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