Learn About Your Heart...
Made Simple

By Nicolas Shammas, MD

A new, comprehensive sourcebook for
heart and vascular disease patients

Cardiovascular Health Topics

Statistics about Heart and Blood Vessel Diseases in the United States
Structure and Function of the Heart and Blood Vessels
Diseases of the Blood Vessels of the Heart
Surgical Therapies for the Cardiovascular Patient
Peripheral Vascular Disease
Diseases of the Blood Vessels of the Head and Neck
Strokes: How to Survive Them and How to Prevent Them
Valvular Heart Disease
Heart Rhythms: How to Recognize Them and Treat Them
Congestive Heart Failure
11. Understanding Cardiomyopathy, or Weak Heart Muscle
12. Children and Heart Disease
13. Diseases of the Pericardium
14. Systemic Illnesses, Infections and Drugs that Affect the Heart
15. Erectile Dysfunction: a Vascular Disease
16. Cardiovascular Disease Prevention
17. Heart Healthy Nutritional Tips
18. Cardiac Rehabilitation
19. Medications for Cardiovascular Disorders
20. Heart Tests You Need to Know
21. Learn What to Do in a Medical Emergency
22. How to Choose Your Doctor and Hospital
23. Medical Research and How You Can Get Involved
24. Taking the Next Step — A Few Community Resources to Help You Live More Healthfully
25. How Much Did You Learn from This Book: Take a Simple Test


Penny Stoakes, BS, RN

What is a heart attack?

During a heart attack, every minute counts—recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack and seeking medical help can greatly improve your chances for a good recovery.

Let's review exactly what a heart attack is. A heart attack happens when a blocked blood vessel to the heart prevents oxygen from feeding the heart muscle. Without oxygen, the heart muscle becomes damaged. Permanent damage occurs without treatment. A damaged heart has much more difficulty pumping the blood throughout the body, which leads to serious consequences.

The sooner you recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and seek treatment, the better your chances are for a good recovery. Remember: early treatment minimizes damage.

Coronary heart disease is America's number 1 killer. It is important to know and understand your risk factors, the warning symptoms, and what to do in this emergency situation.

What is a risk factor for heart attack?

A risk factor is a disease or habit that is known to increase your chances of heart disease and heart attacks. You can change some risk factors but not others.

What are risk factors that I can change?

You can have a positive effect on your health by addressing the following risk factors:

  • Smoking: The best approach to resolve this problem is simply to quit smoking altogether. When you have the desire to quit, your doctor can give you some medications that help, such as nicotine patches or a medicine called Wellbutrin.

  • High blood pressure: See your doctor regularly and take your medication faithfully.

  • Cholesterol: Know your levels and what they mean. Ask your doctor to check them if you don't know, and have them checked regularly. If you are on prescribed medication, take it regularly and exactly as prescribed.

  • Exercise: If you live a sedentary life, try putting more exercise into your daily routine—even a short walk every day will enhance your feelings of well-being and may lead to a more active life. It can also increase your LDL (good cholesterol) and help lower your HDL (bad cholesterol). It can help to lower your blood pressure and even help to lower blood sugars if you have diabetes.

  • Diet: After determining your cholesterol levels, take steps to learn about good and bad fats and how to make your diet more heart-healthy.

  • Stress: You can change stress levels or at least better manage stress by educating yourself on what causes you stress and how you can more effectively manage feelings of stress.

What are risk factors that can't be changed?

  • Genetics: You can't change who your parents are and what they pass down to you. If your parents have had heart problems, it increases your chances of having them too, unless you educate yourself on how to maximize your health situation and change the risk factors you are able to change.

  • Diabetes: Uncontrolled diabetes can accelerate heart disease. Stay on your prescribed diet and medication, check your blood sugars regularly, and report any changes to your doctor.

  • Age: The older we are, the higher the chance of heart disease.

  • Gender: Men tend to have more reported heart disease than women, although new research indicates women have much more heart disease than previously noted.

How do I know if I am having a heart attack?

A heart attack may be sudden and intense. Often, people will say, "I feel like an elephant is sitting on my chest," and there is little doubt what is happening. However, the majority of heart attacks happen slowly, with mild pain or a vague achiness. It can happen at any time, at rest or with activity.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Symptoms of a heart attack include pain in the chest or abdomen, arm, and neck or jaw.

Chest or abdominal pain can:

  • Come and go or stay constant

  • Be a severe, crushing pain

  • Feel like a tight, squeezing sensation

  • Be a stabbing or burning that feels like indigestion

  • Feel like pain or pressure under the breastbone or in the middle of your back.

Arm pain, which may be a soreness or heaviness, can:

  • Affect 1 or both arms

  • Spread from the chest or stay localized in just the shoulder or arm and not affect the chest at all

  • Be described sometimes as a soreness or ache that people may mistake for muscle strain

  • Come and go (in this case, chances are it is heart-related).

Neck or jaw pain can:

  • Present as severe pain in your jaw, up your neck, or even around your ears

  • Be mild or severe and can spread from your chest up to these areas.

Other heart attack symptoms

Symptoms can occur at any time and may or may not be accompanied by the following:

  • Profuse sweating or a cold, clammy sweat

  • Nausea and vomiting without warning or burning in the throat

  • Shortness of breath

  • Anxiety or feelings of doom

  • Changes in the skin—skin is cool and moist and changes from a pink color to pale or gray.

What is the difference between a heart attack and angina?

Angina (heart pain) can feel just like having a heart attack. Both can be similar. Angina gets better with stopping activity or usually goes away within a few minutes. It responds to the drug nitroglycerin if used appropriately. With a heart attack, the symptoms don't go away and medical treatment is needed immediately.

What if I don't know the difference?

If you are not sure of the symptoms, always assume it may be a heart attack. Never worry about a false alarm. Your doctors, as well as your family, would rather you seek emergency care than have serious or fatal heart damage.

What should I do if I think I am having a heart attack?

Call 9-1-1. Never drive yourself to the hospital! The ambulance will arrive quickly with trained medical professionals who will assess your situation.They will give you medicine or oxygen that will help your blood vessels and buy you time in preventing heart damage. In the event you should go into cardiac arrest, they are well trained in resuscitation and can call the hospital for medical advice.

If you or someone else tries to drive you to the hospital, your condition could rapidly change and you could become unconscious. You must rapidly get to the hospital and get medical attention.

What else can I do to help myself in this situation?

In this situation, it is important for you to:

  1. Stay calm

  2. Unlock your front door so help can get into your house

  3. Rest in a chair or lie down—conserve your energy and your oxygen

  4. Loosen tight or restrictive clothing

  5. Take nitroglycerin if previously prescribed by your doctor

  6. Wait for help—don't try to drive yourself!

What can I do if I am with someone who goes into cardiac arrest?

If you are with someone who goes into cardiac arrest, you should:

  1. Check for responsiveness by gently shaking the person

  2. Listen at his or her mouth and nose for sounds of breathing—check for several seconds

  3. Check for a pulse at the wrist (follow the thumb up to the wrist, place 2 fingers gently on the wrist, and feel for a few seconds)

  4. If you can't get any of these responses, call 9-1-1

  5. Begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if you have been previously trained

  6. Never leave the person if you can avoid it

  7. Call out for help.

What can I do to prepare myself for these emergencies?

To prepare yourself for an emergency situation, you can:

  1. Take a community-based CPR class; you may someday save a life

  2. Keep an updated list of all your medications, your doctors' names, the name and phone number of the person to call in the event of an emergency—keep this information in your wallet or purse and automobile glove compartment at all times.

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