Heart Attack: Dial 999

“You know that feeling when your chest feels so tight that you have to really concentrate hard in order to breathe?” No? Well neither did a heart consultant when this writer tried to describe symptoms to them. And yet, according to the NHS, “a sensation of pressure, heaviness, tightness or squeezing across the chest” is one of the symptoms of a heart attack.

Luckily in this writer’s case what they had experienced was down to something else. But that tale shows just how hard it can be to correctly identify the potential signs of a heart attack. More so when an individual is experiencing one of the less well known symptoms such as sweating or a feeling of uneasiness.

And yet, the earlier that a heart attack is identified, the greater the chances of survival. Nowadays some seventy percent of individuals experiencing a heart attack will survive but that figure climbs to over ninety percent with early hospital treatment. That’s a significant increase. It’s no wonder therefore that the NHS has this month launched a campaign to increase heart attack awareness.

So would you dial 999? A survey revealed that whilst 62% of us would dial 999 if they or a loved one was experiencing commonly known heart attack symptoms, that figure fell to 45% for less well known symptoms. And whilst 70% of individuals surveyed recognised pain in the chest as a heart attack symptom, that figure dropped to 41% of individuals who recognised sweating as a symptom. Dropping still further down the awareness stakes, just 27% knew that feeling weak, lightheaded, or a feeling of general unease could also potentially signal a heart attack.

The full list of potential symptoms can be found on the NHS campaign website. It is also worth noting that men and women can experience heart attacks in different ways. As the campaign website says: “While the most common symptom of a heart attack in both men and women is chest pain, women are more likely to experience other symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.”

That difference in experience led to a 2016 study by the University of Leeds to conclude that women had a 50% greater chance of having an initial misdiagnosis than men. The study also found that nearly 30% of patients overall received an initial diagnosis which differed from their final heart attack diagnosis.

It’s hardly surprising therefore that the NHS campaign message is twofold. Firstly, study and be aware of potential heart attack symptoms. Secondly, if you suspect a heart attack, don’t delay in calling 999. As Dr Charmaine Griffiths, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, said: “Every minute counts when you’re having a heart attack – it’s a medical emergency, and immediate treatment could be the difference between life and death. It can be easy to dismiss early symptoms of a suspected heart attack, but don’t think twice about dialling 999. The NHS and our emergency services are there for everyone, and one quick call could save your life”.