When arm pain stems from the heart

It isn’t necessarily chest pain that signals a heart event. Here, Michael shares his experience, in his own words, during an interview with the Heart Foundation.

“In 1994, while out of Auckland on holiday, I was in the kitchen one day when I got a sudden very sharp pain in my arm. So sharp that I had to sit down. It went away after about 30 seconds. After having another one a few minutes later I talked to my wife about it and she said, ‘You better go and see the doctor if it happens again.’

“It did happen again, so I went to see a GP and he said, ‘I’m sure that it has nothing to do with your heart, but I’ll give you an ECG if you like.’ I suggested that if he didn’t think it had anything to do with my heart, then there wasn’t much point. So we left it at that – a bit of a mystery.

“A week or so later, the pain in my arm returned so I went back to the doctor and got another GP who was again mystified. She said, ‘When you go back to town, see your normal doctor.’ He was away so I saw a locum who couldn’t understand what it could be and said it could be some nerve in my back, so on his recommendation I went to see a chiropractor but it made no difference.

“I didn’t actually have any more pains in my arm, but the next thing that happened was that I started getting breathless walking up hills, so I went to my GP. I had had a history of asthma as a child and I’d had two or three nose operations to clear the passages. I went back to see the ear nose and throat person who said, ‘Yes, it is blocked again.’ So I had an operation, but that didn’t cure the breathlessness... 

“Shortly after that I started getting indigestion type pains in my stomach and my wife said, ‘That is because you eat so quickly,’ but I knew it wasn’t caused by eating because I was having these pains even when I hadn’t been eating. This happened over a period of several months.

“I then met up with a physician friend and I was telling him about this and he said, ‘It’s probably your ticker and not anything to do with your nose. Come with me and I’ll give you an exercise test.’

“This happened the next day, which was a Friday. He said, ‘Don’t do anything strenuous over the weekend, but go and see this cardiologist first thing on Monday and he will give you an angiogram.’

“My angiogram showed two severely blocked arteries, which resulted in an angioplasty. My physician blew up both the arteries but didn’t think a stent was necessary. I was fine for about six months and then the main artery got blocked again. He blew it up again and didn’t put a stent in, even though he was doing stents in those days.

“Ever since, I have been fine just on medication. I eat healthily and exercise quite a lot by running and playing golf. 

“My cholesterol level was a little high so I have been on cholesterol-lowering drugs since. I did change to a more healthy diet. I don’t eat butter and we just use olive oils – if I have toast I put a spread on it without any butter. We eat a lot of fish, and when we eat meat it is lean. We eat a lot of vegetables and fruit.

“I know I can’t do as much as before, such as heavy lifting or working for long hours in the garden. I can tell when I get tired and I just stop, so that I don’t overexert myself.

“This all happened 22 years ago and, of course, during that time, treatment has become a lot easier because they now do angioplasty through your arm rather than through your groin, which was a bit of a mission. They used to have a heart surgery team on hand in those days in case the angioplasty went wrong. That has long since gone because angioplasty is now quite a regular event.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that it isn’t necessarily chest pain that signals a heart event.”


Shared November 2016

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

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