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Know Your Heart Attack Risk Factors, Signs

Cardiologist Says Symptoms Not Always Obvious

February 17, 2013
By SHELLEY HANSON Staff Writer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING - The problem with recognizing the signs of a heart attack is that until you've had one, it's not usually obvious that it is happening.

That's why people need to know their risk factors: Do they have cholesterol problems, high blood pressure or diabetes? Are they overweight, live a sedentary lifestyle or smoke? If so, they need to be aware and pay attention to what their bodies are telling them.

Dr. Robert Fanning, interventional cardiologist and director of cardiac care at Wheeling Hospital, said heart attacks don't typically happen the way people see them on TV. They are not usually big and massive and obvious. Heart attacks usually present slowly and vaguely with persistent pain or pressure. Many people believe it's just a case of heartburn - a feeling they don't recognize or acknowledge as chest pain.

Article Photos

Photos by Shelley Hanson
Dr. Robert Fanning, interventional cardiologist, talks about heart attack risk factors. February is Heart Awareness Month.

''It happens literally every stinking heart attack,'' Fanning said.

Because people don't recognize these symptoms - or they hope it's not a heart attack - they often call for help much later than they should. On average, locally, patients delay getting medical attention four hours after they start having symptoms. And many of these same patients, when asked, admit that they had the same symptoms days before, he said.

''That was the moment of opportunity - when they first had it. The problem is when you were a kid if you burned your finger on the stove, you would know what that felt like,'' he said. ''But if you've never had a heart attack ... you have no basis for comparison, you don't know what to expect. ... It doesn't have to be the worst pain you've every felt. ... It's vague. It's not necessarily severe.''

Fact Box


Chest pain or discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center or left side of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back.

The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.

Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

Shortness of breath. Often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.

Other symptoms may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Fanning noted younger women, those under 55 years old, tend to have different heart attack symptoms than men. For example, they have unexplained sweatiness, fatigue and shortness of breath.

''They don't often have the same heaviness, pressure, squeezing and tightness that men have,'' he said. ''I think we've come a long way in teaching and recognizing atypical symptoms in women.''

Fanning noted the No. 1 factor that people can control to help reduce their risk of having a heart attack is to reduce their cholesterol. And the best way to do that is to get moving.

Fanning, who conducts CPR classes across the Ohio Valley, said people are more willing to try CPR now that they can help someone survive with only chest compressions circulating the blood. Previously people were taught that breathing into someone's mouth also was needed.

And if one sees someone in need of CPR, Fanning said it's worth trying chest compressions even if one has no experience or training.

''It's not that complicated. What's the worst you're going to do? You're going to break a rib ... '' he said.

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