Local physician explains heart attacks

KINGMAN - Louise Jorgenson was up most of the night on St. Patrick's Day a few years ago with what she thought was the flu.

Jorgenson had severe gastrointestinal pain and never thought she was experiencing a heart attack, especially since she thought she knew the symptoms from when she had her first heart attack several years prior.

"There wasn't anything I recognized as symptoms of a heart attack," Jorgenson said Wednesday during Kingman Regional Medical Center's monthly Lunch & Learn event. "Now I know a lot of the things to look for."

The most common sign of a heart attack is angina, or chest pain, but symptoms can range from shoulder and back pain to gastrointestinal pain like in Jorgenson's case, said Dr. Saadeh Saadeh, a cardiologist at Kingman Regional Medical Center.

"We're human," Saadeh said. "We like to simplify things by saying it's indigestion or heartburn."

Classic chest pain is only present about 50 percent of the time during a heart attack, Saadeh said. The other 50 percent of the time patients exhibit symptoms that people might incorrectly attribute to other causes.

It's important to recognize those asymptomatic pains as being a possible heart attack because the earlier the treatment, the greater the chances for survival, Saadeh said.

"You have to be aware of the fact that things might present in weird ways," he said.

While survival rates for heart attack victims have increased dramatically in 40 years, from 30 percent in the 1960s to around 95 percent now, the easiest way to treat a heart attack is to prevent it altogether, Saadeh said. Genetics, smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and lifestyle choices all influence a person's chances for a heart attack. Around 500,000 Americans a year have a heart attack.

Heart attacks are caused by plaque in the arteries. The amount of plaque increases with age. It isn't the plaque itself that causes problems. It's when the plaque ruptures that a chemical is released that attracts blood cells which in turn form clots which in turn block the artery and cause a heart attack.

The commercials advising aspirin as a treatment for heart attacks aren't just clever marketing, Saadeh said. He advised chewing aspirin at the first sign of symptoms. He also suggested placing a nitroglycerin pill under your tongue and letting the medicine dissolve.

"If after three minutes you're still feeling badly, put another pill under you tongue and use your other hand to reach for the phone to call 911," he said.