When to Call an Ambulance: Heart Attack

Patient with Chest Pain
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Almost everyone has experienced some form of chest pain in their lives, but how do you know when it’s something more serious and when to call an ambulance? We spoke with emergency department director Shawn Bishop to learn what to look for and when to call for help.

Know the Signs

“People often put off calling an ambulance or going to the hospital when they’re having chest pain, chalking it up to something else like indigestion or a pulled muscle,” says Bishop. “In the case of a cardiac event, every second counts because once the damage is done to your heart it can’t be repaired. The heart muscle doesn’t grow back. It’s always best to err on the side of caution if you have symptoms that seem like a cardiac event.”

Cardiac Event Symptoms

The most common symptom associated with a heart attack is chest pain, but it can also present in different ways. The pain can also feel like it’s coming from your back, left arm, left shoulder, neck, jaw or even a tooth. You may also only feel pain in those other areas without any chest or back pain, but it will likely feel like it’s radiating from your chest or back.

Other symptoms to watch for:

  • Clamminess or sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting

“The sudden onset of these symptoms is a strong indicator of a cardiac event and should be taken very seriously,” says Bishop. “Trust your body and don’t take any unnecessary chances. If one or more of these symptoms quickly develop, call 911 immediately. Do not attempt to drive yourself to the emergency department. By attempting to drive yourself to the hospital you’re not only putting yourself in additional danger, but also those around you on the road. And the EMTs have life saving skills that you may need on the way to the emergency department.”

Other Serious Conditions That Can Cause Chest Pain

Many other non-life-threatening conditions and diseases can present in similar ways to a heart attack, but some are life-threatening and should also be treated as soon as possible by calling 911.

  • Angina presents almost identically to a heart attack and indicates an underlying issue with your heart, usually coronary heart disease (CHD).
  • Blood clots in your lung can also cause chest pain and should be checked out by a doctor to rule out any complications.
  • Dissecting aneurism is another life-threatening condition that may be diagnosed instead of a heart attack. If you have a known issue seek immediate medical attention.

For more information on conditions that may seem like a heart attack but are non-life-threatening, learn more here.

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