Someone suffers a heart attack every 43 seconds in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
About 735,000 Americans have a heart attack each year. Out of this staggering total, 525,000 suffer a heart attack for the first time and about 210,000 have had a previous heart attack.
About 15 percent of the people who have a heart attack are likely to die.
Heart Attack: What it is & Why it Occurs
A person suffers a heart attack when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart is stopped by a blockage.
This does not necessarily mean that blood circulation to the entire heart is cut off. Even if a fraction of the heart is deprived of blood flow, the muscles in that region can no longer pump blood to that region.
Heart attacks primarily occur due to coronary heart disease (CHD), also referred to as coronary artery disease (CAD), characterized by clogged arteries.
Unhealthy levels of cholesterol can start building up as plaque (fatty deposits) in the walls of the arteries from a young age.
Thereafter, other substances like calcium, fibrin and cellular waste material enter the bloodstream, also attaching to the arterial walls and further hardening the plaque.
The gradual plaque buildup causes thickening and narrowing of the arteries, ultimately leading to clogged or blocked pathways.
The fibrin that contributes to the plaque buildup also causes blood clotting, further obstructing blood flow to the heart and often resulting in a heart attack.
Heeding Warning Signs of a Heart Attack can Save Your Life
About half of the people who have a heart attack die right outside the hospital or just before any medical care can be administered, according to the CDC.
It is possible to recognize the signs of a heart attack — not hours, but days in advance — and seek medical attention before it occurs and causes severe damage or death.
Many people, a lot of them still young, succumb to heart attacks that could have been prevented simply because they did not pay heed to its early warnings.
Here are the signs and symptoms to look for to spot a heart attack before it happens.
1. Chest Pain and Discomfort
Movies and television have warped our perception of what chest pain associated with a heart attack should feel like.
The pain is bearable, as opposed to acute and debilitating, and may often extend to the hands, shoulders and jaws.
Many people describe it as discomfort in the chest. A feeling of pressure building inside the chest, as well as tightness and constriction, are also common symptoms.
- Stable chest pain: This type of chest pain is predictable, occurring after strenuous physical activity that strains clogged arteries. The pain vanishes after relaxation, rest or taking medication.
- Unstable chest pain: This type of chest pain may occur at any time, with or without physical strain, due to clogged arteries. It does not have a traceable pattern. It usually occurs while resting, lasts longer than stable pain and does not usually diminish with medication.
Since chest pain develops slowly, people seldom connect it with heart disease. Instead, they attribute these aches to other factors like aging, increased exertion, indigestion and bizarre sleeping positions.
At times, the heart may skip beats, pound or flutter uncontrollably. These sensations, known as palpitations, may be accompanied by a feeling of discomfort, shock and often fear.
Sometimes palpitations are caused by non-threatening factors, such as stress, anxiety, medication and excessive consumption of stimulants like caffeine, nicotine or alcohol. They subside on their own with physical and mental relaxation.
However, in some cases, palpitations may signal an underlying heart condition.
Palpitations are especially serious if accompanied by dizziness, according to a 2005 study published in American Family Physician.
If you have been suffering palpitations for quite a while and if they keep intensifying over time, consult a cardiologist as they could be the result of clogged arteries and may result in a heart attack.
3. Shortness of Breath
When your arteries are clogged, any amount of exertion is bound to put extra strain on your heart.
Therefore, if you find yourself struggling to catch your breath after a workout or a routine activity like walking up a flight of stairs, it may be a symptom of clogged arteries. This could cause a heart attack in a matter of days.
An evaluation of patients suffering cardiac stress showed that those who suffered shortness of breath were at a higher risk of death from cardiac disease than those without it, according to a 2005 study published in the Journal of New Medicine.
Lack of oxygen-rich blood flow to the heart due to arterial clogging weakens the heart muscles over time. This causes the heart to pump blood poorly, often pushing the fluid from blood back into the lungs.
This interferes with normal breathing, and in more severe cases, may lead to a heart attack.
4. Excessive Sweating
When your arteries struggle to pump blood to your heart due to clogging, your heart suffers extra strain when you engage in physical activity.
When you exert yourself, your body produces heat and sweats as a means to regulate its temperature. People often shrug off increased sweating, thinking some people just sweat more than others.
However, if you find yourself sweating excessively with even a little activity, it could mean that your heart is having trouble performing its basic pumping function, causing your system to work extra hard to regulate your body temperature.
When your arteries clog up due to plaque accumulation, it weakens your heart, causing it to pump blood poorly. As the heart is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body, this inhibits blood flow to the digestive tract, causing reactions like gastrointestinal cramps and nausea.
If you have a history of vomiting or digestive sensitivity, especially if accompanied by cold sweats and dizziness, it might be a symptom of clogged arteries and may result in a heart attack over time.
6. Weakness and Dizziness
Since the heart is the powerhouse organ of the body, and blood flow its life-support, any obstruction in their normal functioning is bound to wear you down. When there is active plaque accumulation in the arteries, it interferes with smooth blood flow to the heart.
This weakens the muscles of the heart, causing them to work extra hard to pump blood to the other organs efficiently.
As a result, your body goes into overdrive, causing you to feel fatigued faster. Therefore, the next time you feel fatigued with little to no exertion, practice caution and consult a cardiologist.
7. Erectile Dysfunction
If you have erectile dysfunction that lasts a couple of days or more, it might be an indication of a heart attack soon to follow. The penis is one of the first organs affected by arterial clogging.
Just as the arteries supply blood to the heart, other blood vessels supply blood to other organs of the body. An erection occurs when there is a rush of blood to the penis.
Clogged blood vessels can prevent that from happening, and also indicate clogging of blood vessels leading to other organs, such as the heart.
Erectile dysfunction can be a warning of an impending heart attack, often in a matter of 3 to 5 years, according to a 2011 study published in Circulation.
If you experience unexplained erectile dysfunction, consult a cardiologist to see if you have blood flow problems.
8. Earlobe Crease
As absurd as it may sound, a crease in your earlobe could also indicate arterial clogging. The crease typically runs diagonally from your ear canal to the outer edge of your earlobe.
Out of 520 people suffering from CAD, 55 percent reported the presence of diagonal earlobe creases, according to a 2006 study published in The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology.
Another 2012 study published in The American Journal of Cardiology substantiates this finding, and reports that the presence of diagonal earlobe creases is positively and significantly associated with clogged arteries.
If you notice an earlobe crease, make an appointment to see your doctor as it could be indicative of clogged arteries. Treating clogged arteries early on can reduce your risk of a heart attack.