February is American Heart Month and a good time to think about how to protect your heart at a crucial point in time — when you are having heart attack symptoms. An accurate and prompt diagnosis of a heart attack is critical, but the symptoms are often misinterpreted.
A recently published British study says that one in three heart attacks is misdiagnosed. The same Leeds University researchers also said women are 50 percent more likely than men to be given a misdiagnosis after a heart attack.
The sooner a person receives emergency treatment, the better a person’s chances are of surviving a heart attack.
A 2014 Duke University study coordinated by the American Heart Association found that a collaborative emergency response by paramedics and hospitals to treat heart attack patients meant faster care, which was associated with a 15 percent improvement in survival rates.
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that every year about 750,000 Americans have a heart attack. Most of these cardiac events are a first heart attack, occurring in people who may not recognize what is happening to them. They in particular depend on medical professionals to make the correct diagnosis — and to do so quickly.
Even the 200,000 Americans each year who suffer a second, third or subsequent heart attack need someone to understand that they are undergoing a medical emergency.
Would You Recognize a Heart Attack?
Your first best defense against having a heart attack misdiagnosed is to understand the symptoms of a heart attack and what to tell a doctor, emergency responders or emergency dispatchers.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, a national leader in heart disease treatment, explains in a blog post that no two people experience a heart attack in exactly the same way. There are multiple symptoms that may indicate a heart attack. Symptoms may be mild and occur over the course of a few days.
A heart attack is a loss of blood circulating in the heart due to blockage or narrowing in arteries. Loss of blood means a loss of oxygen, which causes heart cells to die. If the damage is extensive enough, the heart will quit functioning.
If a heart attack is not diagnosed and treated, it can lead to cardiac arrest – or the sudden stoppage of heart activity.
A heart attack victim may experience one or all of the following symptoms during a heart attack:
- Chest pain or discomfort, ranging from mild to severe
- Pain in your shoulders, arms, chest, neck or jaw
- Stomach pain, which may spread and feel like heartburn
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sweating and cold, clammy skin.
If you or anyone else is experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, you should call 911. You or the caller should tell emergency dispatchers that a person may be having a heart attack, and describe the symptoms.
A potential heart attack victim should chew and swallow an aspirin, Penn Medicine advises. Heart disease sufferers who have been prescribed nitroglycerin should take it as prescribed if they think they are suffering a heart attack.
Women’s Other Burden: Heart Attack and Misdiagnosis
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, according to the CDC. Women age 55 or younger who survive a heart attack may fare worse than their male counterparts, according to the American Heart Association. They may have more physical limitations and worse quality of life going forward.
This makes it even more important for women to understand the symptoms of a heart attack and to be prepared to make their symptoms known to medical personnel.
Carolyn Thomas, a Mayo Clinic-trained women’s health advocate and heart attack survivor, writes for her Heart Sisters blog:
Thomas says an Emergency Department physician sent her home from the hospital with a misdiagnosis of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), although she presented with textbook heart attack symptoms like chest pain, nausea, sweating, and pain radiating down her left arm.
Thomas cites women readers of her blog who reported receiving Emergency Room misdiagnoses ranging from indigestion to anxiety or menopause when, in fact they were suffering heart attacks. She also quotes a University of Pennsylvania study that says first-responders such as paramedics may be significantly less likely to provide standard levels of care to women who call 911 with cardiac symptoms compared to men with cardiac symptoms.
To make sure you are accurately diagnosed, Thomas says a woman must:
- Know your symptoms;
- Know the facts about women and heart disease;
- Be specific about what’s happening to you;
- Ask clarifying questions if you don’t understand what you’re being told; and
- Get results.
If you think you’ve been misdiagnosed, Thomas advises:
- Do not feel embarrassed to speak up or ask clarifying questions;
- Get more tests/ask for repeat tests;
- Get a second opinion;
- Keep going back until you are diagnosed accurately.
Legal Help for a Misdiagnosed Heart Attack
If you or a loved one has suffered medically because of a misdiagnosed heart attack or heart disease in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, you may have legal recourse. The Colleran Firm has extensive experience in pursuing compensation for victims of medical malpractice in the Philadelphia area, including cases involving failure to diagnosis a heart attack.
Our compassionate attorneys understand from having helped many families what you and your family are going through. Contact us today for a free consultation and answers to your questions about your legal options after a misdiagnosed heart attack.