What does a heart attack feel like?
ER doctor: Often it's not what you imagine
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Hollywood has provided a clear picture of what a heart attack looks like: Someone clutching his or her chest and crashing to the ground. But in real life, the signs can be far more subtle and confusing.
We asked three survivors with three very different sets of symptoms to share their experiences.
Courtney Alexander had just finished a day of skiing when her symptoms struck out of the blue.
"(I felt) excruciating pain in my upper back," she said. "I had pain in my arms down to my hands. I felt lightheaded, a little nauseous, and something was definitely not right. I was 33 at the time, was fit, had no risk factors (and) no family history of anything -- especially heart disease."
Greg Merritt first felt his unexplained "heartburn" the day before his heart stopped.
"It was likely signaling me to say, 'Now is the time to go,'" Merritt said.
Keith Trost noticed his warning signs months before he went into cardiac arrest while leaving a University of Michigan football game.
"Mowing the lawn, I would get winded and the weirdest thing is, my teeth would hurt," Trost said. "I never had the elephant-on-the-chest feeling or had any of the heart palpitations. I never had any of the other things."
Dr. Brad Uren, an emergency physician at the University of Michigan, has heard all of those symptoms and many more. He said it's common for patients to miss or dismiss the red flags.
"Sometimes it's difficult for even physicians to figure out what's going on in those first few minutes," Uren said. "There seems to be this persistent myth out there that if it's not sharp, it can't be your heart -- and that's wrong."
It's made for some interesting interactions with patients in the emergency room.
"I've had an EKG in my hand that clearly showed that person was having a heart attack, and as I tried to explain that to the patient, they say, 'No, I'm not having any chest pain. There's just some pressure here,'" Uren said.
Many people don't experience crushing chest pain during a heart attack.
"If you look at how most people experience heart pain, it's actually a heavy pressure in the chest with a squeezing sensation radiating to the shoulder, the jaw, the back -- associated with some shortness of breath, nausea (and) being sweaty," Uren said. "Those are the classic symptoms."
Women and people with diabetes are more likely to experience different or more subtle symptoms.
While some heart problems are sudden, often, there were warning signs.
"If you look at people who have had heart attacks, often you can go back and ask them, days, weeks, months, preceding that, they'll talk about, 'Well, normally I'll walk up a flight of stairs at work no problem. Now I'm getting this tightness (and) discomfort,'" Uren said.
As a general rule, if you're sitting at home Googling, "What are the symptoms of a heart attack?" there's a good chance you're having a heart attack and should be calling 911 instead.
Waiting until symptoms are severe can result in a deadly delay.
"If you're actually having heart muscle damage, the longer that you wait and let that heart muscle die, the worse off you will be," Uren said. "As an emergency physician, I'd rather see someone at the beginning of the problem rather than the end. Don't sit at home trying to self-diagnose. Don't wait. Come in."
Alexander, Merritt and Trost are grateful they survived. They hope others can learn from their stories.
"Make sure you see your doctor, because they're the ones who are going to be able to tell," Trost said.
"Best thing to do is to go and get this checked out," Merritt said. "Don't do what I did and say, 'Well, I'm sure it's going to be fine.'"
Did you or a loved one suffer a heart attack? What did it feel like? Were you caught off guard? Share your story in the form below, and we'll build a resource based on the feedback. Help save a life by helping others learn to recognize what's happening faster.
To learn more about heart attacks and heart disease, click here.
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