Heart Smarts

By Fred Jerant~

We’ve seen many heart attacks on TV—the sudden grimace, the hand to the chest, the grunts of “…heart attack…call 9-1-1…” followed by a fall to the floor.

Actually, “TV symptoms” occur only sometimes. The most common signs (usually brought on by exertion) are a lot less dramatic. The American Heart Association says they can include:

• Discomfort in the center of the chest (uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain) lasting more than a few minutes, or that fades and returns

• Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach

• Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort

• A cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness

Both genders typically exhibit similar signs of coronary distress, but women’s symptoms can be different…and more subtle, says Dr. Deborah Sundlof, D. O., a non-invasive cardiologist and medical director of the Women’s Cardiovascular and Wellness Center®, a subsidiary of Lehigh Valley Cardiology Associates, Bethlehem.

“One of the most common female symptoms I encounter is severe fatigue,” she says. And not the kind that comes from a good workout. Instead, says Dr. Sundlof, it’s a feeling of wanting to do nothing at all.

Also, “They often don’t complain of pain,” she says, “but of a nagging sense of discomfort in the upper back, chest or jaw. Many times it’s accompanied by nausea. Swollen ankles and fainting spells are also common indicators. And the symptoms are often brought on by emotional stress.”

Linda Brinker, of Phillipsburg, NJ, “came as close to a heart attack as she could, without actually having one,” says Dr. Sundlof—and didn’t show any of the classic symptoms.

“For months, I had heavy, labored breathing. I thought it was a lung problem because I was a heavy smoker, or had allergies,” Brinker says. Various breathing therapies didn’t help, so her primary physician suggested getting her heart checked.

A catheterization showed complete blockage of one artery, and 90% closure of another. A stent wouldn’t work, so a surgeon performed an emergency bypass using veins from Brinker’s chest and leg. Because the problem was caught early enough, she suffered no heart damage.

Nearly seven years later, she does everything she can to keep it from happening again–regular exercise, healthful eating, and proper medications. She quit smoking, too!

So how can one distinguish between a bout of “agita” and a more serious condition?

Dr. Donald Ferrari, D. O., a cardiologist with St. Luke’s Cardiology Associates, Bethlehem, says, “If you have symptoms while you’re doing routine stuff, and they last for only a short time, it’s usually not your heart. But if they recur, get them checked out. I’d much rather have people err on the side of evaluation,” he says. “If it really is a heart attack, there’s a 90-minute window in which to open that clogged artery.”

Don’t waste precious minutes trying to get yourself to the hospital. Instead, dial 9-1-1 immediately. “EMTs will head out as soon as they get the call,” says Dr. Sundlof, “and when they arrive, they can immediately start various therapies—like oxygen, aspirin or nitroglycerin—and even send EKG data over the phone.”

But the best treatment, Dr. Sundlof says, is defibrillation. “All first-responders have this capability,” she says, “but if you don’t call 9-1-1, you won’t get it.”

Both physicians agree that prevention is the best medicine when it comes to heart attacks, and offer several ways to improve and maintain your heart’s health.

• Stop Smoking! Smoking decreases oxygen to the heart; increases blood pressure, heart rate and blood clotting; and damages the cells that line your coronary arteries and other blood vessels.

• Exercise regularly. Dr. Ferrari recommends 30-40 minutes, five days a week (seven is ideal). “Anything that makes you move is good,” he says, “and if you can’t last for 40 minutes, then start with five or ten, and work your way up.”

• Know your numbers. “For most people, a blood pressure reading of 140/90 is OK,” Dr. Ferrari says. “If you’re at high risk for heart problems—you have diabetes, or kidney disease, for example—130/80 is a better goal.” He cautions that these are general guidelines, and proper blood pressure will vary from person to person.

Also, know your cholesterol level. The American Heart Association recommends levels of 200 mg/dL or lower. “If necessary, treat it with diet or medication,” Dr. Ferrari adds. (For further information on this topic, see the Fall 2009 issue of Lehigh Valley Marketplace.)

No doubt heart attacks can be killers but you can make significant progress toward avoiding one by following our experts’ advice. And remember—these are just general guidelines. To keep your heart in tip-top shape, consult a qualified medical professional.

Fred Jerant is an experienced health writer with over 25 published articles on this subject to his credit. He’s also written medical-based news releases, web and brochure copy.

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