(NewsUSA) - The "Hollywood heart attack" -- the one in which victims grab their chests, gasp and fall to the floor -- is not always the way real people experience a coronary episode. In fact, doctors often struggle to diagnose whether a heart attack has even occurred.
Many patients have symptoms that mimic other conditions, and a quarter of heart attack patients have no chest pain. Many patients even have normal EKG readings. This is especially true for women, who often exhibit different heart attack symptoms than men.
So, how can physicians diagnose a real heart attack? Some of the most important tools are inexpensive cardiac lab tests that can be done quickly with a blood sample. The tests measure substances, which are released into the bloodstream, and signal cardiac stress or damage.
One of these cardiac markers is troponin. It enters the bloodstream within hours of a heart attack and remains there for as long as a week or two. Thus, doctors can diagnose the heart attack well after it has happened.
More accurate diagnosis can result in faster, better care. Patients with a confirmed diagnosis can be treated promptly -- reducing the likelihood of death or disability. Better diagnosis also increases the chances that patients with atypical symptoms will not be sent home incorrectly. In fact, about 2 percent to 10 percent of patients who are actually experiencing a heart attack are sent home from emergency rooms. According to the journal Academic Emergency Medicine, the chance of dying from a heart attack is doubled for a person who is sent home from the hospital because his or her symptoms are atypical or do not register on an EKG.
At the same time, when the tests show that patients have not had a heart attack, the patients can avoid unneeded unnecessary treatment and can be sent home sooner. Some $12 billion is spent every year on inappropriately hospitalizing patients who are not actually having a heart attack.