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Heart Attack Signs and Symptoms You Shouldn't Ignore

By Sara Broek

Of the 920,000 heart attacks each year, 43 percent of them aren't recognized without a blood test. Knowing these symptoms could save your life.

On a cold Friday night in December 2003, 64-year-old Sharon Fellersen awoke to a sharp chest pain. But as quickly as the pain arrived, it was gone. As she tried to relax and get back to sleep, Sharon’s left shoulder began to hurt—a dull ache that lasted only a few minutes.

“The next day I felt fine,” says the Fairmont, Minnesota, native. “It never dawned on me that it could be something more.” She went on with her holiday shopping for the rest of the weekend, not realizing she had had a heart attack—and without help, was destined for another.
According to a study published in European Heart Journal, 43 percent of heart attacks in people over the age of 55 go unrecognized until an incidental electrocardiogram (EKG) is done, which shows evidence that one occurred. The study, which included more than 5,000 participants, also showed that heart attacks were more likely to go unrecognized in women than in men.

A heart attack is caused by a sudden lack of blood to the heart muscle—usually caused by a blocked coronary artery. As cells in the heart muscle are deprived of oxygen-rich blood, they—and the muscle—begin to die, causing damage to the heart. The more time that passes without treatment to restore blood flow, the greater the damage.

Sharon waited three days before going to the hospital—and only went at the gentle urging of a friend. “I had told my husband about the pain I felt,” she says. “But I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to go to the doctor unless I absolutely have to. So I’m sure I downplayed it.” But when she shared her story with her friend, whose husband had a heart attack a few years earlier, her friend told her not to wait any longer, she needed to see the doctor right away. 

After she described her symptoms, the doctor ordered a series of tests including an electrocardiogram (EKG) and an angiogram. Sharon was surprised to learn that two, and possibly three, of her coronary arteries were blocked. When she arrived at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, physicians there discovered Sharon actually had four blocked arteries and she underwent quadruple bypass surgery.

Yet, even after the surgery, Sharon found it hard to believe she’d had a heart attack. “I didn’t have any of the big symptoms: the long-lasting, agonizing pain; the nausea; or the vomiting,” she says.

Print heart attack symptoms for quick reference.

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