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Would You Recognize the Symptoms of a Heart Attack?

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R. Todd Hurst, MD, FACC, FASE - Blogs
By R. Todd Hurst, MD, FACCBoard-certified cardiologistJune 01, 2020

Someone dies of heart disease in the United States about every 40 seconds. And more than one in three of those deaths occur suddenly – something doctors call “sudden cardiac death.”

Here’s why this is important. Most of the people with sudden cardiac death had symptoms in the hours and days before dying; they either just didn’t recognize the signs as worrisome or ignored them. Many of these people missed the signs because they didn’t think they could be at risk for heart disease – they were fit, they exercised, they felt strong.

Just like Rob.

Rob was training for his 4th Iron Man when he started to notice his throat felt dry during strenuous parts of his training. He ignored it at first, but it was getting worse. Rob began to feel the throat dryness earlier in his bike rides and even started to feel it when he wasn’t training. When he mentioned his symptoms to his wife, she insisted that he seek medical attention.

Ultimately, Rob ended up in the emergency room, where it was confirmed that he was having a heart attack. He had an urgent heart catheterization, which found not one, but two blocked heart arteries. He had stents put in to open the arteries, and fortunately only had mild damage to his heart.

Rob had never considered the possibility that he could have a heart problem. Sure, he had a family history of heart disease, and his cholesterol wasn’t great, but people with heart problems had chest pain – and they weren’t Ironmen!

Rob was fortunate that he wasn’t one of the 300,000 people who die each year in the US from sudden cardiac death. I have several patients with similar stories. They had symptoms that were recognized too late to prevent significant heart damage. But unlike many others, at least these patients were able to tell their story.

The message is that symptoms of heart disease are complex. It’s not just chest pain or pressure that radiates to the left arm. There is a lot of individual variation in how heart disease presents, making it a challenge for all of us, including doctors, to determine when symptoms are heart-related.

Here is the information I want everyone to know about possible heart symptoms.

  1. Symptoms that occur with physical activity or emotional stress and go away with rest – like what Rob experienced – need to be evaluated by a medical professional.
  2. Symptoms such as chest pain or pressure, nausea, indigestion, or heartburn that aren’t going away – particularly if associated with shortness of breath, sweating, palpitations, or feeling like you will pass out need to be evaluated by a medical professional urgently. Don’t drive yourself to the hospital, but call 911.
  3. If you’re concerned, I’m concerned. Be safe and have your symptoms evaluated by a medical professional. It’s much better to be told it isn’t your heart than to find out too late that it is.

Rob’s story was a success because it ended well. He has resumed participating in Ironman competitions, although he doesn’t push himself to the limits anymore. More importantly, he has continued his duties as a loving father and husband.

Recognize the possible symptoms of heart disease. Don’t become a statistic.

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About the Author
R. Todd Hurst, MD, FACC

R. Todd Hurst, MD, FACC, FASE, is a board-certified cardiologist, director of the Center for Cardiovascular Health at Banner – University Medicine Heart Institute, and associate professor of medicine at the University of Arizona. He has written more than 50 publications in peer-reviewed journals and regularly speaks nationally and internationally at medical meetings, primarily on the prevention of heart disease.

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