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February 2011: Recognizing and Preventing Heart Attacks

31 Jan 2011

Megan Sutton is a cardiology nurse practitioner at Weiss Memorial Hospital. Her areas of expertise are heart failure, coronary artery disease and cardiac surgery.

Megan Sutton RN, ACNP-BC
Cardiology Nurse Practitioner
Weiss Memorial Hospital
(773) 564-5912

What exactly is a “heart attack”?
Heart attack is a leading killer of both men and women in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, about 1.1 million people in the United States have heart attacks each year. Fortunately, today there are effective treatments for a heart attack that can save lives and prevent disabilities.

Your heart muscle needs oxygen from blood to survive. A heart attack occurs when the coronary arteries (arteries that supply blood and oxygen to your heart) become blocked. If the flow of blood is not restored quickly, the heart muscle becomes damaged from lack of oxygen. 

What causes a heart attack?
Heart attacks occur most often as a result of a condition called Coronary Artery Disease (CAD). With CAD plaque, a fatty material, builds up over many years on the inside walls of the coronary arteries. Eventually, an area of plaque can rupture, causing a blood clot to form on the surface of the plaque. If the clot is large enough, it can mostly or completely block the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the part of the heart muscle fed by the artery.

What increases risk for a heart attack?
Having these controllable risk factors increase risk of heart disease:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Physical inactivity

Common signs and symptoms of a potential heart attack
Most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people that are having a heart attack are not sure what’s wrong and wait too long before getting help.

Following are signs that can mean a heart attack is in progress:

  • Chest discomfort or pain. Often described as an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest. This discomfort or pain often lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.
  • Feeling of discomfort/pain in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs include nausea (feeling sick to your stomach), vomiting, lightheadedness/fainting or breaking out in a cold sweat.

A woman’s symptoms can be different
As with a man, a woman’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, cold sweat, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

If you think you or someone you know may be having a heart attack:

Call 911 within a few minutes of the start of symptoms. Calling 9-1-1 is almost always the fastest way to get lifesaving treatment. Emergency medical services staff can begin treatment when they arriveup to an hour sooner than if someone gets to the hospital by car. Taking your own car may delay life-saving treatment.

Even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, be sure to tell a doctor about your symptoms and get checked out.

How can I help avoid a heart attack?
The following lifestyle changes will help reduce your risk of a heart attack as well as improve your heart health:

  • Reduce blood cholesterol.
  • Lower high blood pressure.
  • Be physically active every day.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Choose good nutrition.
  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Manage diabetes.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Limit alcohol.

For more information
If you would like more information about heart disease or heart attacks please call Megan Sutton in the Weiss Cardiology office at (773) 564-5912.

Visit Cardiac Care at Weiss for more information. Call (800) 503-1234 to find a Weiss cardiac specialist or find a physician online.