Movies such as Casino Royale make us think that a heart attack is a simple occurrence that one can experience and come out unscathed. However, Dr Barbara Kakande, a cardiologist, says a heart attack is a medical emergency that hampers blood circulation owing to the heart getting blocked by a clot or plaque, insufficient oxygen and nutrients to the heart that causes damage to the heart.
“Heart attacks happen when an artery or a branch of an artery, which provides oxygen, nutrients and other vital elements to the cells, to a part of the heart muscle, is partly or completely blocked, resulting in injury and even death to that section of the heart,” Dr Kakande explains.
This is a very different experience from that seen in the movie where James Bond was seen self-defibrillating. According to Dr Kakande, an attack can lead to heart failure or abnormal heart rhythm and the longer the patient takes without treatment, the larger and the more life-threatening the damage.
Not every heart attack presents with the same signs, some symptoms are in body parts far from our heart. Here are some symptoms you should know:
This is the commonest sign that you may be having problems with your heart. ‘‘For example, if one has a blocked artery, they may feel pressure, pain or tightness in their chest. The discomfort can sometimes feel like a heavy load has been put on the chest, usually left sided chest pain or middle of the chest, and sometimes the back of the chest. Sometimes it is a pinching pain or a burning sensation,’’ Dr Kakande says.
Whatever the feeling, if it is an impending heart attack, it will usually last for more than a few minutes and happens whether you are resting or engaged in an activity.
‘‘If you feel pain in any of these areas, it is important to see a physician to understand what is wrong with your health,’’ she says.
Jaw or throat pain or nasal sinus pain
When one experiences pressure or pain at the centre of their chest that seems to spread to their jaw or throat, Dr Agnes Anyait, a general practitioner, says this is a reason to explore more.
“You might just be experiencing the onset of a heart attack. Patients may describe the pain as stabbing or squeezing pain, or they may even complain of having a tooth. In and of itself, jaw or throat pain has no relation to heart problems as it could be caused by sinusitis, a cold, or muscle pain,» notes Dr Anyait.
Pain that spreads to the arm
Dr Anyait says one should watch out for pain that spreads on the left hand side. ‘‘It usually starts from the chest moving outwards. Nonetheless, for some, it may only occur in the shoulder or in the arm,’’ she says.
Nausea, abdominal pain or heartburn
Experiencing any of these symptoms does not mean you are having a heart attack. However, it is a vital symptom for women and patients with diabetes. If you experience these symptoms and you are certain that it has got nothing to do with any stomach issues, seek medical attention.
Dizziness or light-headedness
Conditions such as hearing problems, dehydration, hunger, and standing up very fast can make one lose their balance or feel faint.
“However, if all of a sudden one feels unsteady, more so when having shortness of breath or chest discomfort, then, they could be having heart problems or about to have a heart attack. This may occur, when the heart becomes too weak to pump sufficient blood to the brain,” says Dr Kakande.
If one has a pre-existing heart disease, a persistent cough is reason to see a doctor.
“Patients with weak hearts, may develop a persistent, usually unproductive cough, as a result of congestion of the lungs. It even gets worse when the cough is productive and happens when the heart cannot handle the body’s demands hence causing blood to leak back into the lungs,” Dr Kakande shares.
If you find it tiresome to accomplish activities you previously did easily, this might be time to have your heart checked out. «These changes might seem small but if they go on for days at a time, they are very significant and need to be taken seriously. That is more so among women,» Dr Anyait says.
If you find yourself sweating for no apparent reason, Dr Kakande says then you might be having a heart attack, particularly when you are also experiencing pain.
Swollen feet, ankles and feet
«When blood is not being pumped adequately, it flows backwards in the veins hence bloating. Heart problems also make it so difficult for one’s kidneys to free the body of excess sodium and water from the body. This leads to swelling of the body,» Dr Kakande explains.
Racing or irregular heartbeat
When anxious or excited, it is normal for your heart to race or skip a bit. However, when it starts beating irregularly for more than a few seconds or happens frequently, Dr Anyait says you might have heart issues, which may hence cause a heart attack.
“The irregular heart beat could also be due to a lot of caffeine or sleep deprivation but at times, it might be due to atrial fibrillation, which needs treatment before matters go out of hand,” she cautions.
Dr Anyait says heart attack risk factors include the following:
Age: Women who are 55 years and above as well as men who are 45 years and above are more susceptible to suffering a heart attack than their younger counterparts.
High blood pressure: Continuous high blood pressures strain the arteries hence damaging them. This is a precursor to a heart attack.
High blood cholesterol levels: A rise in levels of bad cholesterol in the blood makes one susceptible to coronary heart disease. «That is because a lot of cholesterol means fat clogged blood vessels. With factors such as high blood pressure, the risks are even higher,» says Dr Anyait.
Obesity: Having excess fat, especially around the waist makes one prone to a heart attack. That is even when there are no other underlying causative factors.
Diabetes: Even when blood sugars are controlled, if one has diabetes, they are prone to heart problems. When glucose levels are uncontrolled over a long period of time, the chances of one having a heart attack are high.
Low physical activity: Inactivity makes causes premature aging to body organs and they start to give way. The heart is no exception.
Stress: There are several stressing things around us. However, how you respond determines the health of your heart. If you do not find ways to release the stress, then, you are prone to a heart attack.
Alcohol: Many turn to alcohol to relieve stress but high consumption causes high blood pressure, hence several ailments such as heart disease.
●General body checkup: Dr Barbara Kakande, a cardiologist, says doing regular body checkup will point out any health issues you might have hence quicker intervention.
●Exercise more: Elijah Muhwezi, a fitness coach, says it could be as simple as walking or static jogging but any form of exercise will save your heart and other organs.
●Change your diet: You do not have to do anything drastic.
«A few changes, such as eating less fatty meat, then cutting back on red meat, adding a fruit to the diet will go a long way in bettering your health. Continue making changes until you have totally eliminated unhealthy foods,» Sylvia Chelagat, a nutritionist, says.
●Adequate sleep: Insufficient sleep or disrupted sleep will cause stress because you will not be productive. More to that, she says work towards having uninterrupted sleep, say by not eating close to bedtime because indigestion causes frequent awakening in the night which is not good for your heart.