The movie version is a sudden onset of severe pain that feels like an elephant sitting on your chest, but the majority of heart attacks have more of a slow onset. It might be a buildup of chest discomfort that doesn’t go away in a few minutes, an aching jaw or shoulder, an odd pain in the middle of your back, or a little bit of indigestion that doesn’t go away if you take antacids. If any of these symptoms is a new problem for you, it could be the beginning of a heart attack.
What should I do then?Don’t ignore the symptoms. Call 911, even if it’s 2 in the morning. While you’re waiting for the paramedics to arrive, chew and swallow a regular aspirin to help prevent the formation of clots in your coronary arteries. The chewing part is important, because it gets the medicine into your system faster. Don’t even think about driving yourself to the hospital, or having a relative drive you.
I know of a case where a woman had a cardiac arrest while her daughter was driving her to the hospital and there was nothing the daughter could do. Paramedics, on the other hand, can literally start treating you in the ambulance with medications and oxygen. With a massive heart attack where a clot is killing muscle, these minutes matter a lot.
Any other tips?
—Kathleen Cowling, D.O.
Dr. Cowling is assistant clinical professor, Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and vice president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Consumer Reports On Health. For more on heart attack prevention and treatment, see our updated Heart Health guide. And if you're taking medications to lower your risk of heart attack or to treat heart disease, find out how you can lower your drug costs with our free Best Buy Drugs reports.