Many of us have experienced that moment. Maybe we feel a tightness in our chest or an aggressive pulse while we’re in traffic or working out at the gym. Or maybe we just feel wrong. At this point, we may wonder if it’s time to stop and talk to a doctor, or if this is normal.
In fact, people notice the symptoms of a heart attack months before the actual event, says Sutter Zi-Jiang Xu, M.D., a cardiologist at Sutter Health Network. Xu regularly discusses heart attack symptoms and prevention with his patients. Here’s what you need to know.
How early can people experience heart attack symptoms?
For some people, symptoms may appear months or even longer before a heart attack, Dr. Xu said. For others, they may not feel anything before a heart attack occurs.
What do these early symptoms usually look like?
Dr. Xu said the majority of patients have typical symptoms such as chest pain, heaviness or discomfort, palpitations, cold sweats, and shortness of breath. Other people, more women than men, experience abnormal symptoms such as fatigue, general malaise, vague discomfort, back and abdominal pain, and decreased stamina. Two types of symptoms may appear months before a heart attack.
Is there anything that differentiates these symptoms? How do you know about these subtle and unusual symptoms?
It is important to know your heart disease risk to assess early symptoms. Dr. Xu says that when working with a patient, he or she will discuss their family and personal history, blood pressure, cholesterol level, age, and medical history to determine their heart attack risk level.
In this context of risk, they talk about symptoms. Are they normal or not? How experienced are they? At rest or during exercise? Are they related to stress or cold weather? Do they occur with other symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, or cold sweats? This is the starting point for a treatment plan.
Early symptoms don’t sound like a “Hollywood heart attack” experience. Is this normal?
Dr. Xu said there are two main ways people get heart attacks.
Sudden – A person may not have any symptoms before, but suddenly the plaque ruptures, a chain reaction occurs, and a sudden heart attack occurs.
Gradual – As coronary artery disease progresses, the other manifestation occurs gradually. In this case, the artery narrows over time. When the arteries are narrowed by more than 70 percent, a person begins to show preventive symptoms, especially with physical exertion.
When should I see a doctor?
It is important to ignore the symptoms and wait until they become severe. If you are concerned, talk to your doctor. If heart disease is caught early, lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of further problems: eat a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly (about 150 minutes a week for most people), maintain a healthy weight, and drink less alcohol (if if available), does not smoke.