How to know if someone is having a Heart Attack

April 23, 1999|By MEG H. PARTINGTON

Timing can mean the difference between life and death to those suffering a heart attack.

If you are with someone exhibiting classic symptoms of a heart attack - pressure, tightness or heaviness in the center of the chest or pain spreading to the shoulders, neck or arms - lay the person down and immediately call 911 for help, area cardiologists say.

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"The quicker you're in (the hospital), the better," says Dr. Gary Papuchis, a cardiologist with Cardiology Consultants in Hagerstown. "Early treatment is the key thing."

If you think it's quicker to drive the patient to the hospital yourself, do so, but an ambulance is preferable, Papuchis says. If he goes into cardiac arrest while you're driving, there's too much risk that the patient will die.


Other classic red flags are discomfort in the chest, along with light-headedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath, according to American Heart Association.

Sometimes back pain or jaw discomfort can precede a heart attack, says Dr. Rose Dagen, a Waynesboro, Pa., cardiologist. Heart pain is often mistaken for indigestion.

A heart attack occurs when one of the coronary arteries that provide blood to the muscle is blocked by an obstruction, like a blood clot, and the supply to part of the heart muscle is severely reduced or stopped, according to American Heart Association.

Don't let a person ignore any symptoms or write it off as indigestion, Papuchis says.

It's better to go to the emergency room and have an electrocardiogram done to determine if any damage has been done to the heart than to wait and suffer much worse consequences, Papuchis says.

Up to 50 percent of those who have heart attacks don't have any warning signs, Dagen says.

Some signs occur after physical exertion and go away after resting, Dagen says. There is no good way to predict who will have warning signs and who won't, she says.

One of the most common effects of a heart attack is an arrhythmia, which American Heart Association describes as a change from the normal sequence of cardiac impulses. If not dealt with promptly, an arrhythmia can be fatal.

It also is easily treatable with intravenous drugs or by shocking the heart, Dagen says.

Loss of pulse or consciousness typically signifies an arrhythmia, Dagen says. Anyone nearby who knows CPR should administer it until medics arrive.

Aspirin has proven to benefit those having a heart attack because it inhibits the blood-clotting process initiated by platelets, Dagen says.

Before giving anyone aspirin, however, make sure he or she is not allergic to it, Papuchis says.

If the person is awake and alert, give him one adult aspirin or four children's aspirin, Papuchis says. The aspirin is most helpful if it is chewed, he says.

In Washington County, emergency medical personnel on advanced life support vehicles are not administering aspirin to heart attack victims, but sometime this year, new protocol will go into effect that will allow them to do so under the direction of a physician, says Donna Carey, emergency medical services administrative specialist for the county.

-- Heart Attack Stats and Risk Factors

If you suspect someone is having a heart attack:

  • Call 911.
  • Lay the person down.
  • If the person is awake and alert and not allergic to aspirin, give him one adult aspirin or four children's aspirin; chewing them is preferable.
  • If the person loses her pulse or consciousness, have a trained person administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation until medics arrive.
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