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Think You Know What a Heart Attack Is? Think Again

Last Updated 7/22/2011 8:49:50 AM

Most folks today know that heart disease is America's leading cause of death for both men and women. But, chances are, if you were to ask someone on the street to list all the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, they probably couldn't do it.

Dr. James JoyeJust ask James Joye, MD, FACC, El Camino Hospital cardiologist and director of research and education for El Camino's Heart and Vascular Institute. Joye sees plenty of patients every year who, unfortunately, had no idea that they were having a heart attack.

The "Other" Heart Attack Symptoms

After all, in the movies and on TV, heart attacks are always depicted as a crushing pain in the center of the chest. But often, the symptoms are far more subtle than you see on the screen:

  • discomfort, pressure or tightness--not necessarily intense pain--in the chest
  • discomfort or aches in other parts of the upper body, such as in an arm, shoulder, jaw, neck or back
  • shortness of breath
  • flulike symptoms, such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness
  • no symptoms at all (a "silent" heart attack)

"What surprises many of us is that most patients don't have the typical symptoms of a heart attack," explains Joye, in a recent educational video he appeared in for the hospital's Video Center. "And, what's even more startling is that, for about 30 percent of those over the age of 65, there are no outward signs of coronary disease at all."

Gordon's Story

U.S. Air Force unit commander and amateur juggler Gordon Geison of Mountain View, Calif., is just one of the many heart attack patients who didn't recognize his symptoms. He recalls: "When I had my heart attack, I felt a little tightness in my chest and I was lightheaded, but I had no idea I was having a heart attack. And I almost didn't even go to the emergency room. My wife insisted I go, or I would have just tried to ignore it. I owe her my life."

Fortunately, Geison was seen and treated immediately at nearby El Camino Hospital, which has a Chest Pain Center and therefore has well-established systems and protocols in place so that heart attack patients are treated as quickly as possible.

Today Geison is so grateful for the care he received at the hospital that he recently offered to put his juggling skills to use in an educational, yet very entertaining, video about heart disease. Watch his performance here.

Prevention Is Key

When asked how folks can prevent heart attacks, Joye is quick to call out one of the leading causes of heart disease: smoking. "If you smoke, quit. If you can't quit, get help," says Joye. It's that simple.

A healthy diet and regular exercise are also critically important, along with proper care of conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Since his heart attack, Geison says he now exercises almost every day of the year, and has cut down on saturated fats and increased his intake of fruits and vegetables. He also finds juggling not only to be an additional source of exercise, but also a great way to reduce stress.

Time is Tissue

Joye emphasizes that time is of the essence when it comes to heart attacks.

"If you experience chest discomfort or any heart attack symptoms at all, seek medical attention immediately," advises Joye, who says he has seen countless patients who waited too long to get treatment because they were either too busy or simply tried to ignore what they were feeling.

Another word of advice: Don't try to drive yourself to a hospital. Call 911. Let the paramedics assess you in the ambulance on the way to the hospital--it will save time and get you treated much more quickly once you arrive.

The national recommended standard for "door to balloon" (or arrival to treatment) time is just 90 minutes. At El Camino Hospital, the cardiac team aims for a target of 60 minutes or less and, according to Joye, most times "we beat that number significantly."

For more information on heart disease and related conditions, watch Dr. James Joye's series of five-minute videos here.

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