Hollywood has a way of dramatizing medical issues. This seems to be most prominent when it comes to heart attacks. However, as much as we may hate to admit it, the closest Hollywood has gotten in terms of realness of heart attack signs is perhaps “Grey’s Anatomy,” S14: E11 “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper.” (Now, before we continue, in NO WAY do we believe “Grey’s Anatomy” to be a reliable source for medical diagnosis. It is strictly for entertainment purposes only. That being said, SPOILERS AHEAD!)
In the beginning of the episode, we see Miranda Bailey take a pill for indigestion. She then requests to be dropped off at a hospital and calmly informs the front desk nurse that she is having a heart attack. Later, as she is discussing heart attacks with her doctor, she states; “women’s heart attacks don’t manifest the way they do in men. They’re not all chest clinching, vomiting, ‘help my arm is numb,’ boom, floor drop.” This is very true, despite what we’ve seen in the majority of pop culture heart attack references.
A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked. This blockage – most often a buildup of fat, cholesterol or other substances – forms plaque in the arteries that feed the heart (coronary arteries). This plaque eventually breaks away and forms a clot, which interrupts blood flow damaging or destroying part of the heart muscle.
Signs of a heart attack varies from person to person based on gender, age and severity of heart attack. Most common heart attack symptoms for men and women include:
- Discomfort, tightness, uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing in center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes
- Crushing chest pain
- Pressure or pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, upper back, jaw or arms
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Clammy sweats, heart flutters or paleness
- Unexplained feelings of anxiety, fatigue or weakness
- Stomach or abdominal pain
- Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
While these symptoms are typical for both men and women, women’s heart attacks are often described as pressure or tightness. Females are more likely than males to have heart attacks symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:
- Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in one or both arms, back, neck, abdomen or shoulder blades
- Nausea or vomiting
- Unusual fatigue
Because women don’t always recognize these symptoms as being a heart attack, they often show up in emergency rooms after heart damage has occurred. Sometimes heart attack symptoms are attributed to other health problems – indigestion, panic attack, etc. The most important thing you can do if you think you are having a heart attack is (again, can’t believe we’re referencing Grey’s Anatomy) to be like Miranda Bailey and get to a hospital immediately, or call 911 and tell them you are experiencing heart attack symptoms.
You can learn more about the services Stormont Vail Health provides for patients with heart disease by visiting our Cotton O’Neil Heart Center page.