Having served in emergency medical services for years in an area whose population is prone to heart attacks, I’ve seen first-hand the signs of a heart attack, and I’d like to take a moment to introduce them to you.
In movies, heart attacks are often shown coming on suddenly, with pain so intense the actor has to grab his chest, contort his face, and fall to his knees. While these kinds of heart attacks do sometimes happen, it’s far more common for heart attacks to come on gradually.
The truest sign of a heart attack is chest discomfort. Not necessarily pain, but rather a feeling not unlike heartburn or gas. While this pain is usually centered around the chest, it can sometimes do what’s called ‘radiation’, where it spreads away from the chest into the back, arms, shoulders, or even the jaw. It’s usually a good idea to see a doctor if you’re experiencing pain of any kind, but the closer it is to your chest the more emergent the situation is likely to be.
Another common sign is shortness of breath. This can be seen from a long distance away, in fact, as many people who suffer from this kind of shortness of breath assume what is called the ‘tripod position’, where they set down with their legs open, elbows on their knees, and head in their hands or with their hands extended out and their head bent down. Whenever someone is in a position like this it’s a good idea to ask them if they’re alright. It can be a comfortable position for people, so don’t necessarily assume that they’re sick or injured, but as it can indicate a medical problem it’s generally best to be safe than be sorry.
Whether it’s a sudden heart attack like you see in movies and on TV, or a gradual one, when it becomes a severe emergency the pain will be extremely severe like someone is trying to crush the person’s rib cage. If you see someone exhibiting this sign, call 911 immediately.
What to do if you see the Signs
If you see the signs of a heart attack, call 911. Even if the person doesn’t want you to, denial often goes hand-in-hand with heart attacks. Try to encourage them while waiting to let the medics at least hook up a heart monitor, as the monitors can tell rather effectively whether a heart attack is in fact happening or not.
If they really aren’t comfortable with an ambulance or medics coming, try to insist that you drive them to the hospital ‘just to get checked on’. Heart attacks when dealt with early can leave little to know effect down the road, but failing to get treated can be devastating or even deadly. You don’t need someone’s permission to call 911, and medics are usually trained quite well at convincing people to let them take a look at them. If you’re not having any luck yourself convincing them, call 911 and wait for the ambulance to get there.
American Heart Association