February is American Heart Month when we try to raise awareness on the importance of keeping our hearts in top shape. A quick google search will net millions of articles with great tips and guides for diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes we could all make to improve our heart health. We will leave that kind of advice to the experts. This article, on the other hand, is going to focus on a different kind of awareness – being aware of the signs of heart disease, heart attack, and sudden cardiac arrest so the best care and treatment can be administered in a timely manner.
Signs of Heart Disease
Heart disease is an umbrella term for a range of underlying heart conditions which can lead to dire complications over time, but most of them have the same initial early signs. Recognizing these signs can mean receiving treatment before it turns into something deadly. According to Harvard Medical School, there are five symptoms which should not be ignored, especially if you are experiencing more than one at any given time:
- Fatigue – especially after simple activities or with no known cause
- Unexplained Aches and Pains
- Shortness of breath – especially after what should be relatively easy tasks
- Swollen legs, ankles or feet – if your socks are consistently leaving deep dents in your legs, or if you can leave a dent in your legs by pressing your finger to them
- Heart Palpitations – these can be harmless and are sometimes the result of too much caffeine or physical exertion, but if it happens when you are sedentary, it can be a symptom of heart issues.
What you should do – see your doctor for an evaluation and possible tests. If heart disease is identified, finding it early and controlling it can be key to avoiding the next two conditions.
What you should not do – ignore the symptoms, especially if two or more are present. It can’t be emphasized enough that early detection is the best way to prevent further damage.
Signs of Heart Attack
By now most of us are familiar with what are considered the three common signs of a heart attack (crushing chest pain, weakness, left arm pain), but there are a few which may not be uppermost in our minds, and women typically have slightly different symptoms than men. A more comprehensive list includes:
- Pressure or tightness in the chest – this may feel as mild as indigestion, or as severe as an elephant sitting on your chest, it just depends on the person
- Pain in the jaw, neck, radiating down either arm or (most commonly for women) in the back between the shoulder blades
- A feeling of gradual weakness or fatigue (this can start months in advance)
What you should do – call 911 and stay with the person until medical help arrives. This person may go into cardiac arrest.
What you should not do – try to drive yourself to the hospital if you are the one having a heart attack.
Signs of Cardiac Arrest
Cardiac arrest can be the ultimate result of heart disease and/or a heart attack. The symptoms will be quite obvious and may start with heart attack-like symptoms such as weakness and nausea. It quickly escalates to full-blown cardiac arrest:
- Not breathing normally
- May exhibit “agonal breathing” – exaggerated gasping which is a brainstem reflex and not true breathing
What you should do – Make sure the scene is safe. Start the Chain of Survival by phoning (or having someone phone) 911 and begin CPR. Send someone for an AED or get one yourself if you know where it is located and you are alone. When the AED is at the patient’s side, turn it on and follow the device’s instructions. Immediate quality CPR and use of an AED is the patient’s best chance for survival. Continue following the directions of the AED until the patient regains consciousness or emergency personnel arrives. If there is no AED, perform continuous CPR until emergency personnel arrives.
What you should not do – ignore the problem and hope someone else will jump in to help. Fast action is particularly important because for every minute that passes between collapse and defibrillation, the patient’s chances of survival decrease by 10%. After 10 minutes there is little to no chance for survival. Continuous CPR allows oxygenated blood to flow to the patient’s vital organs.