A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood, and therefore oxygen, to a portion of the heart becomes blocked. Most often caused by coronary artery disease or blood clots blocking the flow of blood into the heart, heart attacks cause chest pain and discomfort, shortness of breath and lightheadedness which may occur suddenly or onset slowly. Heart attacks result in damage and death of heart muscle tissue which can lead to long term complications or death. As the leading cause of death among both men and women, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, it is important to know the warning signs of a heart attack and the conditions which mimic the symptoms.
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Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease, often referred to as CAD, occurs when the artery leading into the heart, known as the coronary artery, becomes damaged or diseased. The build-up of plaque, a fatty substance consisting of fat, cholesterol, calcium and minerals, leads to coronary artery disease. As plaque builds up the artery becomes narrow restricting the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to the heart. This decreased flow of blood and oxygen causes angina--chest pain and shortness of breath, similar to the symptoms of a heart attack. If the coronary artery becomes completely blocked, CAD can lead to a heart attack.
Angina, medically known as angina pectoris, is chest pain or discomfort most often caused by coronary artery disease. Other conditions including uncontrolled high blood pressure, valvular heart disease and an enlarged heart also cause angina. Angina feels like uncomfortable pressure, a squeezing sensation, fullness or pain in the center of the chest, as described by the American Heart Association.
The chest discomfort felt during a heart attack also feels like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain. Although similar to the pain of angina, the pain of angina lasts for only a few minutes and subsides with rest. The chest pain of a heart attack lasts longer than a few minutes and often come and goes.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, known as GERD for short, occurs when stomach contents back-flows into the esophagus, a condition called heartburn. Although many experience heartburn, or acid reflux, when it occurs more than twice a week or interferes with daily life the condition is known as GERD, according to MayoClinic.com.
GERD occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter, LES, fails to close completely or opens spontaneously allowing stomach contents to enter the esophagus. GERD causes a burning type of pain in the lower middle portion of the chest. Many mistake this burning pain for a heart attack. The pain caused by GERD often spreads to the throat area and is often accompanied by a sour taste in the mouth.
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
- National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: What is a Heart Attack?
- American Heart Association: Angina Pectoris
- MayoClinic.com: Coronary Artery Disease
- MayoClinic.com: GERD
- National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: Heart Attack
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Heartburn, GER and GERD