When someone experiences chest pains, the first thought that usually comes to mind is that they are having a heart attack. This reaction may be due to what we’ve seen on TV or in the movies, or what someone we know has experienced. However, if the pain goes away after a few minutes, or if it comes and goes at different times of the day – is it a heart attack, and should the person seek help from a health care professional? Yes!
Chest pain can happen to anyone and should never be ignored.
What is angina?
It is an intense, localized chest pain and is a sign that the heart needs more oxygen.
Angina may be an early indicator that the arteries that deliver oxygen to the heart are blocked or narrowing and the person experiencing chest pain is at risk for developing heart disease. Without treatment, the risk for a heart attack increases.
What is the difference between angina and a heart attack?
According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada, “The main difference between angina and a heart attack is that a heart attack causes damage to the heart muscle, and angina does not. Angina can develop into a heart attack.”
What should you do if you or the person in your care experiences angina?
As a family caregiver, it’s important to be vigilant about chest pains, not just in the person you are caring for, but also in yourself. Chest pain can happen to anyone and should never be ignored. If you, the person in your care, or someone else, experiences chest pain, stop what you or they are doing, take medications that may have been ordered for angina, and seek medical assistance immediately by calling 9-1-1.
Common angina symptoms
Because angina and heart attacks exhibit similar symptoms, people are always advised to call emergency services right away. It’s better to be safe than sorry, especially when someone’s life may be at stake.
Typical angina symptoms may include:
- Sensation in the chest of tightness, burning, heaviness, or squeezing
- Discomfort or localized chest pain that appears to be spreading to the shoulders, left arm and back (mostly), or jaw
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling of weakness, dizziness, paleness
Note that if the person in your care has diabetes, they may only appear to be having trouble breathing.
Any of these factors may trigger angina:
- Physical activity or exercise
- Emotional stress
- Extreme hot or cold temperatures
- Eating a heavy meal
- Drinking alcohol or smoking
These angina triggers may vary from person to person and can differ between men and women.
You, or the person in your care, should always seek immediate advice from a medical professional or dial 9-1-1 as soon as possible if one or both of you are experiencing chest pains.
Heart attack symptoms between men and women
Chest pain is the most common sign that someone is having a heart attack. However, men and women experience heart attack symptoms differently.
Male heart attack symptoms may include:
- Chest pain that has been described as an elephant sitting on the chest, with a squeezing sensation that may be periodic or remains constant and intense
- Upper body pain or discomfort in arms, left shoulder, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
- Shortness of breath even when resting
- Dizziness or feeling like you’re about to pass out
- Cold sweats
Female heart attack symptoms
According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation, “Chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack in both men and women.” However, not all women experience the same heart attack symptoms as men. Some women may not have any chest pain, while others may feel only mild chest pain or discomfort. A woman having a heart attack may only have one symptom or a combination of symptoms. Visit the Heart & Stroke Foundation to learn more about heart attack symptoms for men and women.
Heart attack prevention and risk factors
Did you know that nine out of ten Canadians already have at least one risk factor for heart disease or stroke? As scary as that statistic is, there are healthy lifestyle changes that you and the person in your care can make that can seriously decrease the risk for heart disease and stroke.
These healthy lifestyle changes include:
- Eating a better diet
- Incorporating more physical activity into your day
- Losing weight
- Quitting smoking
- Eliminating or reducing stress
- Lowering your alcohol intake and not taking illicit drugs (or abusing medical drugs)
Some people have existing medical conditions that may contribute to heart disease. Consult with a health care provider on how to manage the risk for heart disease or stroke if you or the person in your care has:
- Hypertension or high blood pressure
- High levels of cholesterol
- Atrial fibrillation (Afib or AF) or arrhythmia
Risk factors that can’t be controlled
Unfortunately, some heart disease risk factors are out of anyone’s control. The major heart disease risk factors that cannot be controlled are:
- Sex: A woman’s risk for heart disease increases once she reaches menopause.
- Age: The risk for heart disease increases with age.
- Family history: A person’s risk for heart disease is higher if their close relative had premature heart disease or if they experienced pre-eclampsia during pregnancy.
- Cultural background: People with African or South Asian roots are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, or other risk factors for heart disease at an earlier age. High blood pressure and diabetes are more common among First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples so their risk of getting heart disease is higher than the general population.
At Elizz, we provide caregiver support for you and home care services for those who depend on you. Elizz is a Canadian company powered by Saint Elizabeth, a national not-for-profit health care organization that has been caring for Canadians since 1908.