Heart attack victims fail to recognize many symptoms: study

Health educators need to do a better job of informing the public about the symptoms of heart attack because many people don’t recognize them as warning signs when they occur, according to a nursing researcher.

A recently published study by nursing associate professor Susan Fox-Wasylyshyn found that while most heart attack patients recognized severe chest pain as a warning, they failed to recognize a range of other symptoms that weren’t what they expected a heart attack should feel like.

“If symptoms are not consistent with expectations, the individual is less likely to recognize that they may be having a heart attack, which is likely to result in delays in seeking prompt medical care,” said Dr. Fox-Wasylyshyn.

She analyzed survey results from 135 people treated for myocardial infarction at two hospitals in Windsor and two in the Detroit area. Patients were asked if they experienced a list of such symptoms as chest pain, arm pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, light-headedness, nausea and vomiting. She then measured for the extent of congruence between their symptom experience and their pre-conceived ideas about the nature of heart attack symptoms.

The results of the study, which were published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, suggested that of the many symptoms which might alert an individual they are having a heart attack, chest pain was the only one patients associated with heart attack. Further, the patients did not recognize their discomfort as a symptom of heart attack unless it was severe in intensity, even if the discomfort was in the chest. The study found that 14 per cent of the patients did not experience any chest pain at all, and 31 per cent said their pain was not severe.

“We have to acknowledge that chest pain is a major symptom, but we need to educate the public that not all heart attacks are associated with chest pain,” said Fox-Wasylyshyn. “And the important thing is that it doesn’t have to be severe. People think it’s going to be crushing, horrible pain, but that’s not always the reality.”

Fox-Wasylyshyn said symptom congruence wasn’t much higher for those patients who had a second heart attack, an indication that they may experience different and unexpected symptoms the second time.

More needs to be done to educate the general public and even those working in the health care system to recognize and treat seriously the warnings of a heart attack, especially those that don’t involve chest pain, Fox-Wasylyshyn concluded.

“There’s an expression that time is muscle,” she said. “The longer you wait, the greater the damage to the heart tissue if it is an attack. Even if you aren’t experiencing chest pain you should get checked out and you shouldn’t wait. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Fox-Wasylyshyn will appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk radio show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.


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