Most people realize getting medical help quickly is crucial in response to a heart attack or stroke. But it’s equally important to know the signs so you can act.
“It is an emergency. People need to call 911,” said Erin Michos, MD, associate director of preventive cardiology at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease. The sooner emergency medical responders can begin evaluating a potential heart attack or stroke they can start treatment before arriving at a hospital.
Heart attack signs
Heart disease is the nation’s leading killer of both men and women, and every 40 seconds someone has a heart attack.1
A common symptom is chest pressure or pain that may feel like tightness or squeezing, which can spread out to the arms, Michos said. Other possible heart attack symptoms are shortness of breath, nausea, indigestion, or pain in the jaw or back.
If these symptoms come on suddenly and last at least 15 minutes, despite sitting down and resting, it’s a “red flag” that a coronary artery blockage may be restricting blood flow to the heart, Michos said.
Women, more frequently than men, may experience some of the other symptoms instead of chest pain, wait longer before seeking help, and attribute symptoms to other causes, Michos said.
Furthermore, young and seemingly healthy women without known heart disease risk factors might experience an uncommon form of heart attack caused by a tearing in the coronary artery wall. This is known as SCAD, or spontaneous coronary artery dissection.2
“Heart attack can happen to anyone, even young women,” Michos said. “It can, and it’s real.”
The sooner medical treatment begins the better the chances are of preventing heart damage. After contacting 911, if you are alone, try to call a family member or friend to be with you to wait for the ambulance. Try to stay calm.
“The more worked up people get, it increases the stress on the heart,” Michos said. You shouldn’t try to drive to the hospital. “A heart attack can trigger a dangerous heart rhythm. You don’t want to be in a car if this is happening.”
Also, remember that heart attack and cardiac arrest are not the same thing, though sometimes a heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest is when the heart malfunctions and suddenly stops beating. The person may collapse and have no pulse, and death can occur within minutes. If you see someone in cardiac arrest, call 911, look to see if an AED – an automated external defibrillator – is immediately available, which can help restart the heart for certain types of heart rhythms and perform CPR right away.
Signs of stroke
Just like a heart attack, a stroke is an emergency. Quick help increases the likelihood of saving brain tissue.
An ischemic stroke is the most common type and is caused by a clot that blocks blood flow to the brain. There are clot-busting drugs typically delivered rapidly through IV that may improve the patient’s outcome and reduce the likelihood of permanent disability if administered within three hours.
“Earlier is better. This is a really narrow time frame,” Michos said. “Three hours goes by really fast.”3
A less common stroke type is a hemorrhagic stroke, caused when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures.
Learn the meaning of BE-FAST
To help identify stroke symptoms, the American Stroke Association has long used the acronym FAST. The “F” stands for face drooping; “A” for arm weakness, “S” for speech difficulty; and “T” for time to call 911.4 An updated version is BE-FAST that adds “B” to signify balance problems and “E” for eye, for sudden vision changes or vision loss, Michos said.
Living healthy, knowing your numbers
Heart disease costs the United States some $213.8 billion in direct costs per year, including health care expenses, medications and lost productivity. Approximately 80% of cardiovascular disease is preventable.
To help keep a cardiovascular emergency from happening, adopt a heart healthy lifestyle and know your risk factors numbers.
Primary prevention guidelines recently issued by the American College of Cardiology and the AHA emphasize healthy diet and physical activity in prevention and to involve the patient in health decisions.
The guidelines also recommend using a team approach to address social issues that affect health like access to healthy foods, safe neighborhoods for exercise and access to health insurance. Even brisk walking 30 minutes per day is a positive step in preventing heart disease, and families should make a point of exercising together, Michos said.
The American Heart Association suggests adhering to Life’s Simple 7, seven factors and behaviors than have a big impact on health. They are managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar, getting physically active, losing weight, eating a healthy diet and quitting smoking.
“A healthy lifestyle is the foundation for all preventative efforts,” Michos said. “We encourage patients to be really engaged and be champions of their health.”
Things to Consider:
- Become familiar with heart attack and stroke symptoms and call 911 if they appear.
- Don’t attempt to drive to the hospital if you’re experiencing a heart attack or stroke; it’s safer to wait for medical help.
- Try to adopt a heart healthy lifestyle including physical activity and a nutritious eating plan.