Knowing the classic yet little known signs of a heart attack is important (Picture: Getty Images)
What would you do if you felt a little uneasy and a squeezing sensation in your chest? Tell yourself off for imagining things and ignore it? Take some painkillers and get on with your day? Or go to bed and hope it would pass?
Many of us would choose one of these paths, but actually we could be putting our life and health at risk. Because these two things are classic yet little known signs of a heart attack and need urgent medical attention.
Unfortunately, many of us think the symptoms of an attack are a sudden, violent stabbing pain in our chest followed by a collapse and lapse into unconsciousness.
But we’d be wrong.
Because, while these are common indications of a cardiac arrest – when the heart suddenly stops – they are rarely the signs of a heart attack (the blocking of blood to this vital organ).
Which means many of us don’t realise we’re very ill and fail to get help by calling an ambulance immediately.
It’s a huge problem in England. Currently around 80,000 people are admitted to hospital with the condition each year and at least seven out of 10 survive. But this could be increased to a massive 94 per cent if more of us got to hospital promptly and received the appropriate treatment.
So what are the signs of a heart attack?
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
While the most common symptom is chest pain, it can vary from person to person. Some people may have other symptoms such as shortness of breath, feeling or being sick and back or jaw pain without any chest pain. Symptoms to look out for include:
- Chest pain – a sensation of pressure, heaviness or tightness across the chest
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling or being sick
- Coughing or wheezing
- Feeling of anxiety similar to a panic attack
- There can also be pain in other parts of the body, with or without pain in the chest. The areas to particularly look out for include the jaw, neck, back and upper abdomen.
- It can also feel as if the pain is spreading from your chest into your arms, especially the left although the right can also be affected.
ANYONE CAN SUFFER
Heart and circulatory disease, also known as cardiovascular disease (CVD), causes a quarter of all deaths in the UK every year, and in some areas it’s the biggest reason for premature deaths.
Therefore it’s the biggest single area where the NHS can save even more lives. When the perception of a heart attack – violent chest pain followed by collapse – doesn’t match up to what someone expects to happen, they don’t act, increasing their risk of serious complications or even death.
One in four deaths in the UK are due to cardiovascular disease and it is the biggest reason for premature deaths (Picture: Getty Images)
The more subtle the signs, the more likely someone is to dismiss them as nothing, or wait until they get worse, especially if they don’t see themselves as someone likely to have a heart attack.
Because while it can happen to absolutely anyone – even young, fit people in the prime of life – many believe it’s only the overweight, the sedentary, the smokers, drinkers and drug-takers that suffer. This, in turn, can create a stigma that stops people seeking help.
Making healthy diet and lifestyle choices, taking up routine blood pressure and cholesterol checks and maintaining a healthy weight are among the preventative measures that can be taken to reduce your risk of heart disease.
CALL AN AMBULANCE IMMEDIATELY
If you are experiencing any of the signs of a heart attack, what do you do? You call an ambulance. Paramedics can carry out an ECG test to confirm the problem and call ahead to make sure staff are available to treat you on arrival. Remember, just because you’re not unconscious or visibly injured doesn’t mean it’s not an emergency, so don’t delay acting.
And don’t fear wasting precious NHS resources out of concern that it’s not serious, because this risks delaying your diagnosis and a poorer outcome.
When you dial 999, make sure you tell the operator your symptoms and that you think you’re having a heart attack. Don’t be worried about getting it wrong; it’s far better to be told you’re OK than to risk needing complex treatment because you delayed dialling – or even worse. You’re not a time-waster and being wrong is nothing to be ashamed of.
Don’t hesitate – call right away: Even if you’re scared of getting it wrong, it’s important to not delay your diagnosis (Picture: Getty Images)
Finally, one of the worst things you can do is ignore the problem because you’re scared of the diagnosis. It’s much better to have it confirmed and be treated than leave it to get worse.
‘Often people don’t realise that they are having a heart attack, either because they don’t recognise the early signs or because they don’t consider them severe enough to trouble the NHS,’ says Professor Nick Linker, cardiologist and National Clinical Director for Heart Disease, NHS England.
‘But make no mistake, a heart attack is a medical emergency, and it’s never too early to call 999 and describe your symptoms.’
WOMEN HAVE HEART ATTACKS TOO
The risk of having a heart attack is increased by smoking, a high fat diet, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and being overweight or obese.
But while they’re also slightly more likely to affect men, huge numbers of women also suffer, with the likelihood increasing after the menopause.
In fact, every year 35,000 women are admitted to hospital following a heart attack. That’s around 98 a day or four an hour.
So whatever your sex, if you’re experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack, dial 999 immediately. It could save your life.
For more information, go to nhs.uk/heartattack
‘MY MOTHER’S DEATH SAVED MY LIFE’
Gill Marcipont, 80, lives near Tiverton, Devon. She says:
‘My mother, Jessie, died of a heart attack, aged 70, in the 1970s. She had pains in her chest and was sick and writhing around in agony, so we called the doctor who called an ambulance. But she lost consciousness and never recovered.
‘Then, in May 2015 – the day Princess Charlotte was born – I had a heart attack myself. I felt really weird. I can’t describe how I felt. I went to sit down and a few minutes later, I had pain under my right breast and was saying “Ow, ow, ow”, and walking around in circles.
‘I had pain under my right breast,’ says Gill Marcipont, which she recognised as a symptom of a heart attack from when her mother suffered one
‘It was a writhing pain like my mum had experienced, which is what made me realise it was something to do with my heart. I called 999.
‘Paramedics did an ECG and said, “Yes, you’ve had a heart attack. We’ll get you to hospital straight away.” I can remember saying, “Am I going to die?”
They said, “No, not today”.
‘We went to hospital in Taunton and they were waiting for me, all gowned up, ready to go. We went straight to the cardiology unit and they put something up through my groin – I could see it on a screen! Suddenly I saw the stent open and all the pain went.
‘They put in two stents and within two hours of calling the ambulance, I was sitting up on the ward with tea and biscuits. All because, thanks to my mum, I realised what was happening.’
‘I ONLY SURVIVED BECAUSE I CALLED AN AMBULANCE’
Roy Gould, 69, is a TV director and lives near Norwich with his wife, Sarah. He says:
‘In 2017, I went out for a meal one Saturday evening, and I didn’t feel very well – I was grumpy and cross. I couldn’t wait to get home.
‘The next day, I felt heavy and as if I was coming down with flu. I just wanted to lie down and be left alone. But I thought it was stress.
‘I went to bed early that night with tightness in my upper chest, which I thought was indigestion.
Roy Gould thought he was experiencing indigestion when his upper chest became tight but, in the early hours, a crushing feeling let him to believe it was something more
‘I woke up around 2.30am with my chest feeling like it was being crushed. I told my wife, “Get the phone, I think I’m having a heart attack.” I don’t know why, but I just knew, and I knew I had to have an ambulance.
‘I rang 999. Outwardly I was very calm, but I was petrified. When the ambulance arrived, they gave me an ECG and said, ‘It’s not jumping but you’ve obviously got something wrong, so we’ll take you to hospital just in case’.
‘We got halfway to Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital, three miles away, when suddenly it felt like a butterfly with hobnail boots walked across my chest. I heard the paramedics say “That’s massive!” I was having a huge heart attack.
‘When we arrived at the hospital, eight to 10 people were around me in seconds, putting stuff in me and finding veins. Later that morning, I had an angiogram and angioplasty.
‘I was very lucky. I think I only survived because I was in that ambulance when I had a major heart attack.’
DID YOU KNOW?
You’ve a 40 per cent higher risk of having a heart attack in the morning, between 6am and noon.
This article is part of a paid-for partnership with HM Government.