Skip to main content

Recognizing the Early Signs of a Heart Attack

Heart attacks are the leading cause of death in the United States at over 375,000 per year.

They occur when blood flow to one of the heart’s arteries (blood vessels that supply the heart muscle with blood and nutrients) is obstructed causing loss of function of the heart tissue supplied by those arteries.

What causes a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when a blood clot forms on top of thickened, hardened heart arteries. This thickening and hardening of the arteries is caused by build up of fat and cholesterol causing a plaque in the arteries.

When the plaque becomes inflamed it can burst open causing a blood clot to form that completely stops blood flow and causes the actual heart attack.  The longer the artery remains closed, the more damage occurs to the heart tissue due to lack of blood flow and oxygen. Once the muscle dies, it results in permanent heart damage.

How can you tell if someone is in the early stages of having a heart attack?

Most people have discomfort in the center of the chest that last more than a few minutes or comes and goes frequently.  Typically the discomfort is described as pressure like, squeezing or fullness.  However, this is not always the case. Sometimes the symptoms are less straightforward – such as arm or jaw pain, shortness of breath, breaking out into a cold sweat or nausea.

Women and people with diabetes are much more likely to have one of the less common symptoms.

When should you seek medical attention?

If have chest discomfort that lasts more than 15 minutes and does not go away, or if you have other symptoms that has you worried about your heart, you should call 9-1-1 and seek immediate medical attention.

Are there different types of heart attacks?

Yes. All heart attacks require immediate medical attention, but some types require an emergent procedure called a cardiac catheterization to immediately restore blood flow given concern for significant muscle damage.

The type of heart attack can be identified with an EKG in the emergency room to determine the best treatment option for each individual.


Can heart attacks be helped? Prevented?

There are several things individuals can do to lower their risk of having a heart attack.

  1. Avoiding smoking.
  2. Keep your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol under good control.
  3. Avoid foods with saturated and trans fats.
  4. Limit salt intake.
  5. Exercise for 30 minutes 5 days a week.

All of these are excellent tools to lower your risk of having a heart attack.

About Jason Haag, MD

Dr. Jason Haag is a heart and vascular physician with WakeMed Heart & Vascular – General & Interventional Cardiology He specializes in coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, valvular heart disease, cardiac arrhythmias and preventative care for cardiac disease. His clinical interests revolve around cardiac imaging, stress testing, cardiac MRI and nuclear imaging.

Request an appointment with Dr. Haag today.