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Would You Be Able To Recognize Chest Pain As Heart Disease?

Most people are pretty good judges of what’s going on with their own bodies. But telling a heart attack from other causes of chest pain is tough stuff—even, it turns out, for highly trained doctors. That’s why I thought this personal story, written by a Harvard doctor who has heart disease, would make an interesting read. It’s an excerpt—the full version can be found in Heart Disease: A guide to preventing and treating coronary artery disease, an updated Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

Early one spring, I noticed a burning sensation high in my abdomen whenever I walked up a hill or worked out on the treadmill. I felt perfectly healthy otherwise. I had lots of energy and could do high-level exercise on the treadmill—once the burning sensation went away—without becoming short of breath. I thought it was just heartburn, so I started taking powerful acid-suppressing pills. They didn’t help.

Sometimes when I would feel the burning in my chest, I would remember an old saying to the effect that “A doctor who takes care of himself has a fool for a patient.” Still, I hesitated; I didn’t want to waste the time of a cardiologist if all I had was heartburn.

But one morning as I walked across the street from the garage to my office in the hospital, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Pulmonary Embolism: If It Can Strike Serena Williams, It Can Ace Anyone

News that tennis star Serena Williams was treated for a blood clot in her lungs is shining the spotlight on a frightfully overlooked condition that can affect anyone — even a trained athlete who stays fit for a living.

Williams had a pulmonary embolism. That’s doctor speak for a blood clot that originally formed in the legs or elsewhere in the body but that eventually broke away, traveled through the bloodstream, and got stuck in a major artery feeding the lungs. (To read more about pulmonary embolism, check out this article from the Harvard Heart Letter.) Pulmonary embolism is serious trouble because it can prevent the lungs from oxygenating blood — about one in 12 people who have one die from it.

“No one is immune from pulmonary embolism, not even super athletes,” says Dr. Samuel Z. Goldhaber, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and one of the country’s leading experts in this clotting disorder.

Pulmonary embolism tends to happen among people who have recently had surgery, been injured, or been confined to bed rest for some time. It can also strike after long-haul flights.

Signs of a PE

How do you know if you’re experiencing a pulmonary embolism? The most common symptoms include shortness of breath when you aren’t exerting yourself, along with chest pain and coughing up blood. If you experience any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately. Other worrisome signs include:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Clammy or bluish skin
  • Light-headedness
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat

The tennis star’s pulmonary embolism could have been the result of the perfect storm. After having a cast removed from a foot she cut at Wimbledon, Williams flew from New York to Los Angeles. It was in LA, after an appearance at the Oscars ceremony on Sunday, that she underwent emergency treatment at Cedars Sinai Hospital for a blood clot in her lungs.

A call to action by the U.S. Surgeon General says that pulmonary embolism and a related condition — deep-vein thrombosis — affect an estimated 350,000 to 600,000 Americans each year. Together, they account for somewhere between 100,000 and 180,000 deaths each year.

To learn more about pulmonary embolism, check out this information from the North American Thrombosis Forum.

- P.J. Skerrett, Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Shoveling Snow? How To Protect Your Heart

After shoveling the heavy, 18-inch layer of snow that fell overnight on my sidewalk and driveway, my back hurt, my left shoulder ached, and I was tired. Was my body warning me I was having a heart attack, or were these just the aftermath of a morning spent toiling with a shovel? Now that I’m of an AARP age, it’s a question I shouldn’t ignore.

Snow shoveling is a known trigger for heart attacks. Emergency rooms in the snowbelt gear up for extra cases when enough of the white stuff has fallen to force folks out of their homes armed with shovels or snow blowers. 

What’s the connection? Many people who shovel snow rarely exercise. Picking up a shovel and moving hundreds of pounds of snow, particularly after doing nothing physical for several months, can put a big strain on the heart. Pushing a heavy snowblower can do the same thing. Cold weather is another contributor because it can boost blood pressure, interrupt blood flow to part of the heart, and make blood more likely to form clots.

When a clot forms inside a coronary artery (a vessel that nourishes the heart), it can completely block blood flow to part of the heart. Cut off from their supply of life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients, heart muscle cells begin to shut down, and then die. This is what doctors call a myocardial infarction or acute coronary syndrome. The rest of us call it a heart attack.

The so-called classic signs of a heart attack are a squeezing pain in the chest, shortness of breath, pain that radiates up to the left shoulder and down the left arm, or a cold sweat. Other signs that are equally common include jaw pain, lower back pain, unexplained fatigue or nausea, and anxiety. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Sex And Your Defibrillator

Have a defibrillator and feel like getting frisky? For the first time that I can recall, there’s a very helpful article published in Circulation addresses the concerns of implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD) patients and sexual activity. There’s all kinds of helpful tidbits, like this one:

A study of 1,774 patients who had experienced an acute myocardial infarction showed that sexual activity was a likely contributor in fewer than 1 percent of cases. In fact, regular physical exertion, such as that associated with sexual activity, was associated with a decreased risk of cardiac events in patients.

Now that’s helpful!

Recall that defibrillators are designed to detect rapid, potentially life-threatening arrhythmias. Most of the time, sexual activity does not lead to heart rates at a level that ICD’s would consider elevated during intercourse. (This, of course is patient specific). While your doctor can tell you the rate cut-off at which your ICD might possibly fire, watching your heart rate rise with a monitor during those moments might be a bit of a, shall we say, turn-off. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Wes*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

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Latest Book Reviews

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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