Know The Signs Of A Gradual Heart Attack

Lori Coffelt, RN, CCCC
Los Alamos Medical Center Emergency Department Director
When you think of a heart attack, you probably imagine what you see in movies: a person suddenly clutching his or her chest in pain. But most heart attacks don’t happen that way, new research says. For more than half of heart attack patients, symptoms come on gradually.

Researchers studied nearly 900 people who had heart attacks. The findings, published in The Journal of Emergency Medicine, showed only 35 percent of them experienced sudden chest pain. The other 65 percent described symptoms that were mild at first and worsened over time, or came and went away. Not all patients felt chest pain, either.

Fast action saves lives

People with gradual symptoms waited longer to seek treatment. They arrived at the hospital within three and a half hours, on average. That’s compared with two hours for people with sudden symptoms. Patients with gradual symptoms were also less likely to call 911.

That delay may seem small, but it makes a big difference. If you’re treated one to two hours after symptoms start, your risk of dying from a heart attack is cut in half.

Watch for these symptoms

Chest pain is the most common sign of a heart attack. Other symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweats
  • Pain or discomfort in either arm, back or jaw
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness

These symptoms may feel mild at first. Or they might go away, and then return. Remember, you can be having a heart attack even if you don’t feel chest pain.

If you suspect you, or someone near you, is having a heart attack:

  • Call 911. Tell the person who answers where you are and that you suspect a heart attack. Don’t hang up until you’re told to do so.
  • You should not drive, or let someone else who is having symptoms drive, to the hospital.
  • Los Alamos County paramedics are fully prepared to assess and treat heart attacks, calling 911 can provide important life-saving minutes.

To learn more about heart attack symptoms, visit and click on “Know the Heart Attack and Stroke Warning Signs”.

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