Is It Indigestion or A Heart Attack?

The holiday season can sometimes lead to unhealthy behaviors. We indulge at holiday buffets, enjoy an extra cocktail, skip our regular exercise and stress about everything that needs to be done. Perhaps that’s why there’s an increase in heart-related deaths during the holiday season. After analyzing 25 years of data and 53-million U.S. death certificates, researchers discovered the correlation, with heart-breaking numbers peaking on Christmas, the day after Christmas and New Year’s Day, according to a 2004 study published in Circulation, an American Heart Association journal.

Ronak Patel, MD, ProMedica Physicians Cardiology, says there are many reasons why this phenomenon occurs, including some of the unhealthy heart behaviors mentioned above. Even worse, we seem to be more apt to ignore the warning signs of a heart attack and delay getting help during the holidays because we think it may be indigestion and we don’t want to be embarrassed if we’re wrong.

Dr. Patel says that traditional “symptoms of a heart attack are usually behind the breast bone, pressure-like or squeezing sensation, that typically will radiate either to the neck or to the left shoulder. It could be associated with trouble breathing.”

However, some patients, especially women, the elderly and those with diabetes–may have different, or atypical symptoms that are harder to distinguish. According to Dr. Patel, these symptoms may include belching, indigestion or just trouble breathing.

Patrick Bruss, MD, an ER physician at ProMedica Toledo Hospital, says that the nerves inside our bodies make it difficult for individuals to pinpoint where the problem is coming from. We may know we’re having a problem in an area without knowing if it’s specific to the heart. Dr. Bruss reiterates that it can be especially difficult for women older than 55 and those with diabetes to identify atypical heart attack symptoms. However, sweating is often one of the key indicators he has seen. “Any chest pain and indigestion with sweating is a red flag,” he says. Pain that radiates down the arms is also a red flag, especially if it is going down both arms.

Dr. Bruss also recommends listening to your gut. “What is your concern level?” he says. “It’s your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. If you are concerned about something, it never hurts to get it checked out.”

“The key is to be attune to what is abnormal for your body,” adds Dr. Patel.

If you think you’re having a heart attack, call 9-1-1. Never drive yourself or a loved one to the emergency room; calling an ambulance keeps you safe and gets you help faster. Once you’ve called 9-1-1, slowly chew and swallow one full-strength, 325-milligram aspirin tablet, which will help “thin” the blood, making it more difficult for the blood clot that caused your heart attack to grow. This may reduce the damage to your heart.

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