As you may know, heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. Every year, 1 in 4 deaths are caused by heart disease. That’s why it’s critically important to know how to live without heart pain. February is American Heart Month – a month dedicated to promoting awareness about heart health, so you can make lifestyle choices that help you prevent damage to the heart and lower your risk factors for having a heart attack.
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Heart pain 101
Of course, any pain you feel in your chest or ongoing chest discomfort should be taken very seriously. Most heart attack survivors vividly remember the fear and crushing pain of having a heart attack (myocardial infarction).
The most common symptoms of heart attack are:
- feeling tightness in your chest (pressure or a squeezing sensation)
- shortness of breath
- acute or throbbing pain in your left arm that radiates down to your chest
- a tight clenching feeling in your jaw, arm(s), neck, back or stomach
Other heart attack symptoms include:
- breaking out in a cold sweat with unexplained nausea
- indigestion, vomiting
Let’s look at some startling statistics around heart disease:
- Approximately 735,000 Americans have a heart attack every year.
- Over 520,000 of those are experiencing a first heart attack.
- 1 in 4 women dies from heart disease in the United States each year.
- The most common cause of heart disease in both men and women is narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart itself.
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for people of most ethnicities in the United States.
If you experience any symptoms that could be signs of a heart attack, it’s important to seek medical attention right away. Call 911 or get someone to take you to the emergency room. When it comes to surviving a heart attack, every second counts. Cardiologists say most heart attacks damage the heart within 12 hours.
A must-read lesson from a cardiac nurse
If you’ve ever sustained an injury or fallen ill and ignored your symptoms, you will likely relate to a story from Jennifer Gaydosh, CVRN. She is a cardiac nurse who ignored her own heart attack symptoms for 6 days.
Gaydosh chronicles her days, starting with the first time she started feeling heart attack symptoms. She awoke in the middle of the night to a dull and burning ache in her left arm. At 47 and overall fit, she recounts that she thought she slept on it wrong, but that the pain didn’t subside even after she repositioned herself. “So I walked around a bit and gave the cat a snack, and still the pain was there, she said. “I also felt sweaty and vaguely nauseated.”
She took her symptoms seriously and sought emergency medical treatment. Her EKG came back perfectly normal and her heartbeat was fine, but her troponin levels were elevated. For the next few days, she tried to shake off the persistent pain, but the discomfort in her left arm that was radiating over her chest was unbearable and nothing eased it. She dismissed it, choosing to believe it was a pinched nerve or there was some other explanation for it. She refused to believe it was indeed a heart attack.
Another 120 hours passed from when her symptoms began and she was back in the hospital. This time, it was clear she was suffering serious heart failure that had been causing all of her heart pain. She was diagnosed with a fatal form of heart disease called SCAD, spontaneous coronary artery dissection.
SCAD occurs when there’s spontaneous tearing in the coronary artery wall. This causes serious damage to the heart muscle. Research says around 80 percent of the time, SCAD occurs in fairly young, healthy and active patients – typically women under the age of 50.
Understanding the causes of heart pain
While some heart pain is caused by SCAD, heart attacks can be the result of heart disease and contributing factors like high cholesterol, obesity, smoking and high blood pressure. But regardless of the cause, heart pain can be a clear indication that you aren’t getting enough oxygenated blood to your heart muscle.
When chest pain is caused by reduced blood flow to the heart, it’s diagnosed as angina, which is a symptom of coronary artery disease (CAD), a lifelong condition. CAD is a type of heart disease and an underlying cause of most heart attacks. Sometimes doctors interchangeably use the term coronary heart disease (CHD) as well.
This condition can occur slowly over time as fatty material (plaque) builds up in the coronary arteries and restricts blood flow to the heart. Obviously, this is a serious condition: if left untreated, it can lead to a blood clot that can result in a fully blocked artery and cause a heart attack.
What’s scary about CAD and CHD is both can occur with no symptoms or symptoms so mild, people often dismiss them as normal aches and pains. Plaque build-up (atherosclerosis) that causes your arteries to narrow over time can begin in your youth. Unbeknownst to you, it silently gets worse as you age. It isn’t until you experience chest pain or have a heart attack that you would even be aware something was wrong. This is yet another reason heart attacks and heart disease are referred to as “silent killers.”
The good news is if you learn how to live without heart pain through diet, exercise, medication, self-care and monitoring, it’s possible to avoid further damage to the heart.
How to live heart smart
During American Heart Month, take a moment to make sure you’re living heart smart by following preventative guidelines. The CDC has identified the top four things you can do if you’re wondering how to live without heart pain:
- Don’t smoke. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
- Manage conditions. Work with your health care team to manage conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
- Make heart-healthy eating changes. Protect your heart with nutrient-dense, plant-based, whole foods. Center your meals around foods low in trans-fat, saturated fat, added sugar and sodium.
- Stay active. Get moving for at least 150 minutes per week. You can even break up the 30 minutes into 10-minute blocks.
How do you plan to improve your heart health this year?
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