Most heart attack victims feel some symptoms in the days leading up to the attack. The most common symptom is angina (chest pain). Chest pain results when the heart muscle is not getting enough oxygen, a condition called ischemia. Angina is likely to get worse or more frequent as the heart attack approaches. Other possible symptoms are extreme fatigue and shortness of breath.
If someone has angina, they may have difficulty distinguishing angina symptoms from heart attack pain. Heart attack symptoms are usually much more severe and longer-lasting (more than 20 minutes) than angina. Heart attack symptoms are relieved only slightly or temporarily by rest or medications used to relieve angina.
Many people report feeling a sense of warning as a heart attack approaches. There can be tightness, pressure, pain, and a "squeezing" feeling in the chest. The pain may also be felt in the back, jaw, shoulder, or arm (especially the left arm). The heart may speed up and beat irregularly. Although chest pain is usually the first symptom, up to 20% of people having a heart attack do not experience chest pain.
These other symptoms may or may not develop:
• shortness of breath
• nausea and vomiting
• temporary changes in vision
Almost everyone who suffers a heart attack experiences arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). Some of these irregular heartbeats are harmless, while other types can cause serious problems, even death. One type, ventricular fibrillation (VF), can lead to death in about 5 minutes. The left ventricle, the main pumping chamber of the heart, quivers uselessly instead of delivering blood to the body. The heart does this because of the lack of oxygen delivery.
Not all heart attacks are this severe. In fact, some heart attacks go unnoticed or are shrugged off as heartburn or angina. Distinguishing a heart attack from heartburn is not as easy as you might think - antacids and belching can actually relieve heart attack pain, though it usually returns quickly. Nitroglycerin sprays or pills, often carried by people with angina, may also relieve pain temporarily. However, chest discomfort caused by most heart attacks is not relieved by nitroglycerin. It is important to use your discretion and common sense: if the discomfort feels worse or different than usual, consult your doctor.
Making the diagnosis
A doctor can tell a lot about a heart with a stethoscope, but the standard test for heart attack is the electrocardiogram (ECG). Electrodes are taped to the chest and the electric signals made by the heart are monitored. Different parts of the ECG wave give information on different parts of the heart and this tells the doctor if there is ongoing damage and where in the heart it may be located.
There's also a blood test that reveals the presence of a heart attack by looking for a protein that is released when heart cells die. This helps to eliminate the possibility of other conditions that might be confused with a heart attack, such as a blood clot in the lung or pneumonia.