I read an interesting article today about how actor Christian Bale effectively saved the life of Vice director Adam McKay. As part of the Oscar-winning actor’s preparation to play former Vice President Dick Cheney in the upcoming film Vice, Bale learned everything he could about heart attacks because the veep had more than his share. At one point during the filming of the movie, Bale explained to McKay that not all heart attacks present with pain across the chest or shooting pain down the left arm.
Not long afterward, McKay was at the gym when he felt queasy and had tingling in his arm. He initially didn’t think much about it, but then he remembered what Bale had said about heart attacks and he rushed to the hospital. He was, in fact, having a heart attack, and getting to the ER so quickly likely saved his life and certainly saved his heart from having too much damage.
This is a lesson I try to share as often as I can. Not all heart attacks present in the same way, and in fact heart attacks in women often present in very different ways. When we think of heart attacks, many of us have the image of Redd Foxx as junkyard owner Fred Sanford clutching his chest and looking to the sky declaring to his dead wife “I’m coming to meet you Elizabeth.” That’s how I envisioned it. At least, until I had one.
Heart attacks can present in many different ways. Here are just a few: Pain in the area between shoulder blades, arm, chest, jaw, left arm, or upper abdomen. Dizziness, fatigue, lightheadedness, clammy skin, cold sweat, or sweating. Heartburn, indigestion, nausea, or vomiting. Discomfort or tightness in the arm or neck. Anxiety, chest pressure, feeling of impending doom, palpitations, or shortness of breath. In women, symptoms often include jaw pain, back or shoulder pain, shortness of breath, or nausea/vomiting.
Many times there’s little drama involved in a heart attack. My heart attack presented with a radiating heat across my chest, a cold sweat, indigestion, and pain down both arms. I didn’t think I was having a heart attack, though looking back I should have. And because my symptoms only lasted for about 20 minutes, I figured whatever it was had ended and I was OK. Because of that, I didn’t seek treatment for two days and ultimately that caused permanent damage to my heart that otherwise could have been avoided. I could very easily have died while I avoided going to the hospital. My E.K.G. was so bad when I did go to my doctor two days later that she called 9-1-1 and I got a ride to the ER where 30 minutes later I was in the cath lab receiving three stents for a mostly blocked left anterior descending artery (LAD).
Heart attacks are also not always caused by blocked arteries, otherwise known as atherosclerosis. Heart attacks can also be caused by a spasm of a coronary artery, arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythm), cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart), undetected heart defects, and even electrical shock. In other words, heart attacks are not monolithic in nature.
WebMD has a nice list of common heart attack symptoms, but even if you’re having one or more of these symptoms it can be confusing to know if you should get to the hospital. It’s easy for me to say this in hindsight, but when it comes to heart attack symptoms I suggest you don’t take any chances. What’s the worst case — you spend a few hours at the ER and go home feeling silly? It beats dying!