Picture someone having a heart attack. Are you imagining someone suddenly clutching their chest and falling to floor? That’s what the movies tell us, but there are instances where you wouldn’t even be able to tell that someone’s having a heart attack. That's what happened to children's book author Linda Johns.
In an article for NPR’s health news website, Shots, Linda described her own heart attack, which happened during an event at a book store with fellow authors. After finishing a presentation, she suddenly felt intense flu-like symptoms "unlike anything I'd ever experienced before." When she told one of her author-friends that she wasn't feeling well and she planned to leave early, her friend noted her "ashen" face and wanted to bring to the hospital immediately.
On her website, Linda (seated, center) shared the photo above with the caption, "I am having a heart attack in this photo."
Linda didn't think it was necessary, and even drove herself home. On the road, she started to feel pressure on her chest and a stabbing pain in her back between her shoulder blades. After a while, she vomited and felt pain go down her left arm to her little finger. She got home and asked her husband to rush her to the ER where it was confirmed that she was indeed having a heart attack--a myocardial infarction in medical terms.
Linda's heart attack had not been caused by a blockage, but a tear in the inner lining of her artery. The condition is called spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD. The tear causes blood to clot in the artery, which blocks the flow of blood to her heart.
As of now, not much is known about SCAD and what causes it, but it isn’t rare. Mayo Clinic is currently conducting research about it, calling it a “markedly underrecognized” condition in a paper published in the Texas Heart Institute Journal.
SCAD occurs predominantly in women--80 percent of cases according to the paper. Alarmingly, these women are also typically healthy and young. “SCAD has been found to be a factor in up to 40% of heart attacks in women under the age of 50 years,” says the author Sharonne N. Hayes, M.D. Linda noted in her piece that she actually had a physical examination and received a clean bill of health a few months prior to her heart attack.
A slow and subtle heart attack, like the one experienced by Linda, is actually not very far from what most heart attacks are like, especially in women. Most heart attacks span several hours, according to WebMD, and most cases show no symptoms at all. Women are less likely to experience it, however, making it more difficult to identify.
In fact, in Linda's case, chest pain was the least of her symptoms, and she said it was her ashen face that got the attention of the hospital.
Other symptoms of a heart attack, according to Mayo Clinic, can include:
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Pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing or aching sensation in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw or back
Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain
Shortness of breath
Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness
In some, symptoms are mild, and in others, severe--like a cardiac arrest that are the frightening sudden collapses that’s commonly portrayed in the media. The more symptoms you have, the greater likelihood you’re having a heart attack. Many people start to experience warning signs and symptoms hours, days or even weeks in advance.
It’s important that as soon as you feel like you’re suffering from one that you call for help. Because heart attacks are most commonly caused by a build-up of fat, cholesterol, and other substances in the arteries, a balanced diet and regular exercise is crucial in keeping the heart healthy.