Recognizing the signs of a heart attack
A warning sign of a heart attack is increasingly frequent chest discomfort. In fact, chest pain or discomfort is the number one symptom of a heart attack. We refer to chest discomfort because it is not always what you would consider as a sharp pain, but more like a pressure or tightness in the chest. It can come and go quickly, or it can present as a dull, but persistent sensation. Typically, it will spread to the arm, neck or back, but for some patients it remains isolated to the chest. Either way, chest pain should always be evaluated by a medical professional.
Other heart attack symptoms include shortness of breath and breaking out into a sweat.
Women can have slightly different symptoms then men such as discomfort in the shoulder blades or back. Sometimes it is only the onset of nausea and vomiting or just breaking out into a sweat for no apparent reason.
Anyone who has risk factors for heart blockages is potentially in danger of having a heart attack. This includes people who smoke or have a long history of smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated cholesterol levels, and a strong family history of early heart disease. A strong family history involves someone with an immediate family member, who at the age of 60 years old or younger, had blockages in their heart or had a heart attack.
With a heart attack, time is of the essence. A heart attack occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart become blocked, reducing or eliminating blood flow to the heart muscle. If adequate blood flow isn’t restored quickly, by opening the blocked heart artery, permanent damage to the heart may occur. For this reason, it is important that chest pain always be taken seriously. Most of the damage from a heart attack occurs in the first several hours. Therefore, the earlier you get to the hospital, the better chance you have of surviving a heart attack with less muscle damage.
Anyone who believes they may be experiencing any of the signs of a heart attack - pain in the chest, shortness of breath, and a recurrent discomfort that feels like indigestion – should not ignore the pain. Call 911 and if you are able, take an aspirin. Emergency Medical Services (EMS) staff will begin treatment when they arrive at your location and continue care on the way to the hospital.
When Calling 911
When you call 911, it is important you answer the dispatcher’s questions as completely as possible. It may seem like they are taking too long, but they are often sending help before they finish asking the questions. Answering the 911 dispatcher’s questions does not delay the responding ambulance and ensures that the appropriate responders are sent to your location.
Sometimes you can provide additional information that may make it easier to locate you such as “use the carport door” or “it is the building behind the red brick house.” The dispatcher may ask you to repeat things like the address or phone number you are calling from. This helps to ensure that they have the information correct and a way to contact you back if you get disconnected.
When calling about chest pain or heart attack symptoms, be specific. Tell them where the pain is located – chest, shoulder, jaw or back. Be sure and inform them of other symptoms you may be experiencing. The dispatcher may ask if you have aspirin and/or an AED, an electronic medical device, available. EMS dispatchers are trained to ask about allergies and give instructions for taking aspirin. If you are calling for someone else and they ask about the AED, this is to help just in case something changes with the person you are calling about. The AED can be a tremendous lifesaving device if the person with chest pain loses consciousness.
Once EMS arrives at your location, they will begin an echocardiogram (EKG) test that measures the electrical activity of the heartbeat. The EKG test is used to detect problems such as a heart attack, irregular heartbeats or heart failure. The EKG is transmitted from the ambulance to the hospital prior to arrival, and then shared with the medical team and the cardiologist. If the Emergency Department Physician sees that the EKG indicates a heart attack, the patient is transported directly to the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory.
The key to a successful outcome from a heart attack is early detection and treatment. If you have symptoms of concern, the earlier you get to the hospital, the better your chance of success. The bottom line is “time is muscle.” The earlier the blocked artery causing the heart attack can be opened up, the less heart muscle damage one will suffer, and the better outcome the patient will have.
This article was submitted by Dr. Alan Blaker and Major Kate Smith. Blaker is an Interventional Cardiologist with McLeod Cardiology Associates. Smith, a paramedic and professional standards and training officer, has been a part of the Florence County EMS team serving the members of this community for 25 years.