In the UK, one person every five minutes is admitted to the hospital due to a heart attack. Heart attacks are medical crises that need rapid treatments and early prevention to give people the best possible chance of survival. To do so, we must elucidate the symptoms of a heart attack, so people know when to act quickly.
Pain in the left arm is a key heart attack symptom that many people overlook, mostly focusing on chest pain. It needs to be understood that not one heart attack looks the same, with symptoms varying in severity and type across each individual.
This article will elucidate the experience of a heart attack, what it's caused by, what it's like to have one, treatments, and prevention. This will arm you with the best knowledge pool should you or a loved one experience it.
Understanding a heart attack
An acute myocardial infarction, commonly referred to as a heart attack (HA), is a serious medical emergency and a leading cause of death worldwide. Coronary arteries are the blood vessels responsible for delivering blood to the heart muscle walls, enriching the organ with oxygen and nutrients that are essential for its proper beating. HAs occur when this blood supply is suddenly blocked. The heart muscle will be starved of oxygen, so will tire and die. This inhibition of blood flow to the heart is caused by blockages forming in coronary arteries.
HAs are mainly caused as a result of coronary heart disease (CHD). This is a condition in which fatty plaques of cholesterol called atheromas build up on the inner walls of coronary arteries, narrowing them and reducing the amount of blood they can deliver to the heart. Atheromas are a ticking time bomb and can suddenly burst. A blood clot will form over a rupture site and block the coronary artery completely, triggering a HA.1
The experience of a HA differs across individuals. The most characteristic symptom of a HA is chest pain, on the one hand, this can be a gripping, tight, severe pain, whilst on the other hand, it can be a milder tightness, often mimicking the ‘heartburn’ of indigestion. Other symptoms include this pain appearing nearby, namely shooting up and down the left arm (but can appear in the right arm too, the neck, back, and abdomen. Other HA symptoms include dizziness and light-headedness, excess sweating, nausea, breathlessness, wheezing, and coughing.2
Heart attack symptoms in left arm
How to know if it is a heart attack?
The symptoms of a HA can often overlap with the symptoms of angina. Therefore, it is important to know the difference between the two so you understand when to take emergency measures.
Angina is a chest pain but can also appear in the arms, back, neck, and abdomen, caused by the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the heart becoming reduced. If one is experiencing angina instead of a HA, these symptoms should ease within a few minutes with rest. HA symptoms will usually cause discomfort for over five minutes.
Angina sufferers can treat their pain medically using prescribed nitrate medicines, while this will ease angina symptoms, it will not completely stop a HA. If you are experiencing these symptoms and have never been diagnosed with angina before, it is better to be safe than sorry and act quickly by dialing 999 to call an ambulance.
How long does it last?
HA symptoms persist for longer than angina symptoms. Therefore, if you are experiencing chest pain that has been ongoing for five minutes and it doesn’t seem to be easing, contact an ambulance as soon as possible, this is a warning sign of a HA. If you are an angina patient who has been prescribed nitrate medicines to ease attacks, upon experiencing symptoms, take a dose. If after 15 minutes and three doses of the drug, the symptoms still have not subsided, this points towards a HA.
There is no set time frame for how long someone will experience HA symptoms, whilst, for some, the pain lasts only a few minutes, for others, the symptoms can persist over days. Furthermore, whilst some symptoms can disappear quickly, others can linger.
Managing heart attack symptoms in left arm
Upon experiencing HA symptoms, it is important to call an ambulance immediately. While waiting for medical help, to ease the discomfort, stop what you are doing, sit down, and rest. This will prevent any more strain on your heart and will make sure you are in a stable position should you experience light-headedness/dizziness. You can chew on one 300mg tablet of aspirin (if one is easily available and you are not allergic), this thins the blood to reduce its clotting ability. There is not much you can do specifically to manage the pain located in the arm, the best thing you can do for yourself and others is to call an ambulance. Upon arrival, paramedics will confirm that you are experiencing a HA using an ECG, then to manage the discomfort of HA symptoms will often give you intravenous morphine or GTN spray administered under your tongue.
HA complications can be just as serious and life-threatening as attacks themselves. It is important to be vigilant towards these complications after a HA. They include:3
Cardiac arrest - HAs can give rise to an abnormal heart beating pattern (arrhythmia) called ventricular fibrillation. Here the heartbeat becomes disordered and rapid then eventually stops suddenly (a cardiac arrest). If a cardiac arrest occurs, the patient will be unconscious and will have stopped breathing. The use of an electronic defibrillator or chest compressions must be employed quickly to restart the heart.
Other arrhythmias – The heart can be shocked into beating too slowly, too fast, or just irregularly after an attack. A defibrillator will often be used to shock the heart, resetting the normal rhythm.
Heart failure and cardiogenic shock – Extensive damage from a HA makes the heart muscle walls weaker and stiffer. This inhibits the proper pumping of blood around the body.
Heart rupture – The shock of a HA can cause the muscle, walls, or valves to physically split apart causing huge mechanical damage to the heart. This is less common but a very serious complication of a HA, with 50% of people dying after experiencing it.
Treatment and prevention
Most HAs are treated by a coronary angioplasty procedure to widen blocked coronary arteries and restore blood to the heart. A stent or balloon is inserted into the closed artery to expand it. When a coronary angioplasty is not possible due to multiple blockages, a coronary bypass surgery can be performed. Here the heart’s blood vessel circuit is rerouted, avoiding blocked vessels. If you cannot get to a hospital quickly enough or are not a suitable candidate for these procedures, you can be given drugs to help dissolve blood clots. These medicines are antiplatelets and anticoagulants.4
To prevent a HA, you can undertake many lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of CVD and increase overall heart health. These include:
- Stopping smoking
- Drinking more water
- Maintaining a healthy balanced diet
- Increasing your daily exercise
- Reducing your stress
- Drinking less alcohol
- Getting more sleep
When to consult a doctor
If you think that you or someone you know is experiencing a HA, then call 999 for urgent medical attention as soon as possible. The faster you are diagnosed, the faster a treatment plan can be constructed which will increase survival chances massively. If you experience symptoms of a HA but they go away quickly and you feel much better afterward, it is still important to contact medical professionals quickly for a diagnosis to rule out a HA.
Pain in the left arm can be a key sign of a HA and should be taken seriously when experienced with other symptoms. It is important to be in the know so that you are aware of the correct steps to take should an emergency happen, this article was written with this in mind with the purpose of informing you on all aspects of a HA.
- Reed GW, Rossi JE, Cannon CP. Acute myocardial infarction. The Lancet [Internet]. 2017 Jan [cited 2023 Sep 5];389(10065):197–210. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0140673616306778
- Flink LE, Sciacca RR, Bier ML, Rodriguez J, Giardina EV. Women at risk for cardiovascular disease lack knowledge of heart attack symptoms. Clin Cardiol [Internet]. 2013 Jan 21 [cited 2023 Sep 5];36(3):133–8. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3600073/
- Lampert R, Ickovics JR, Viscoli CJ, Horwitz RI, Lee FA. Effects of propranolol on recovery of heart rate variability following acute myocardial infarction and relation to outcome in the Beta-Blocker Heart Attack Trial. The American Journal of Cardiology [Internet]. 2003 Jan [cited 2023 Sep 5];91(2):137–42. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0002914902030989
- Henry TD, Atkins JM, Cunningham MS, Francis GS, Groh WJ, Hong RA, et al. St-segment elevation myocardial infarction: recommendations on triage of patients to heart attack centers. Journal of the American College of Cardiology [Internet]. 2006 Apr [cited 2023 Sep 5];47(7):1339–45. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0735109706000027