Every year, about 935,000 Americans experience a heart attack.
Of these, 610,000 are the patients’ first.
These sobering statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show how prevalent heart disease is in the United States. While physicians say prevention – a healthy diet and exercise – is the best way to prevent a heart attack, what do you do if you start to feel chest discomfort or pain?
Terri Gingerich, Cardiovascular Service Line Director at Porter Regional Hospital, says if there is any question you may be having a heart attack, call 911.
“The whole premise behind a heart attack is to reduce the amount of time it takes to restore blood flow to your heart muscle,” she said.
A heart attack usually occurs when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood through a coronary artery, which is a blood vessel that feeds blood to the heart muscle. If there is an interruption in blood flow, Gingerich says your heart can sustain damage – sometimes irreversible.
“The whole premise behind treating a heart attack is to reduce the amount of time it takes to restore blood flow to your heart muscle,” she said.
While calling 911 may seem like the obvious choice, Gingerich says it’s imperative for people to know not to have a family member drive you to the hospital.
“We want to start treatment prior to you coming into the hospital,” she said. “When you call EMS, as soon as they arrive, they can start doing an EKG and put other measures in place that help reduce the chance of sustaining damage to your heart.”
Heart attacks can be fatal. Gingerich says this is because people either confuse their symptoms or don’t want to be a burden on their family members or hospital staff.
“In those kind of situations, there’s no way you can know at home whether you’re having a heart attack,” she said. “You have to have the proper diagnosis to know that.”
Symptoms of a heart attack include chest pressure or pain that lasts for more than a few minutes, sweating, nausea and vomiting – symptoms people sometimes confuse for indigestion or illness.
Other symptoms include fainting, shortness of breath, clammy skin, unusual fatigue, abdominal pain and pain extending beyond your chest into your shoulder, arm and even teeth.
Not all people experience the same symptoms, she said, and heart attacks can occur anytime – while physically active or at rest.
“Once you get to the hospital, we can rule out whether it’s cardiac-related or not, but until you get the proper diagnostic testing, we always urge people to err on the side of caution,” she said.
After calling 911, Gingerich says to make sure emergency personnel have access to you, such as by unlocking the door.
“An ambulance will be there within a matter of minutes, and the most important thing is to make sure they can get in the house and can get to you quickly,” she said.
After that, immediately get comfortable.
“Once you call, don’t do activity,” she said. “Lie down, wait for them to come. That’s your greatest chance of being a survivor.”
The American Heart Association also recommends taking a dose of aspirin if you think you are having a heart attack. Taking an aspirin improves the chances of survival, but avoid it if you have an allergy to aspirin and do not take it as a pain reliever during a heart attack, the Heart Association recommends.