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Cardiovascular Care

Heart Attack Frequently Asked Questions

What are the most common heart attack signs and symptoms?

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back. It may feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, ear or stomach. Cold sweat, nausea/upset stomach, dizziness, weakness or lightheadedness.
  • Feelings of impending death.
  • Shortness of breath, weakness, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain. (Women are somewhat more likely than men to experience these symptoms.)
  • Diabetics will often present without the classic signs outlined above and are often likely to experience the other common symptoms.

What do I do if I experience these symptoms?

If you think you may be having a heart attack, don’t wait — call 911. Uncertainty is normal, but taking a "wait and see" approach can cost you valuable time to save your heart and your life. Even if you're not sure it's a heart attack, have your symptoms checked out. Minutes matter and fast action can save a life. Patient delay is the biggest cause of not getting rapid care for heart attacks. If you are experiencing heart attack symptoms:

  • DIAL 911 and follow the emergency operator's instructions.
  • CHEW one adult aspirin.
  • SIT OR LIE DOWN until medical help arrives.

What is a heart attack?

Blood is supplied to the heart through its coronary arteries. Over a lifetime, plaques or fatty substances gradually build up inside the walls of the arteries, leading to coronary heart disease (CHD). As CHD narrows the arteries, the flow of blood through the arteries is reduced. If a clot breaks loose and suddenly cuts off most or all of the blood supply to the heart, you're having a heart attack.

Cells in the heart muscle that do not receive enough oxygenated blood begin to die. The more time that passes without treatment to restore blood flow, the greater the damage to the heart.

Why call 911?

  • To be most effective, common heart attack treatments must be given within one hour of the onset of symptoms. Calling 9-1-1 is almost always the fastest way to receive lifesaving treatment.
  • Emergency medical services (EMS) staff can begin treatment when they arrive — up to an hour sooner than if someone gets to the hospital by car. They have training and equipment that can be effective in reversing cardiac arrest.
  • EMS providers can alert the hospital that a heart patient is coming in for treatment, which means a team is assembled and ready to help you by the time you arrive. They are also trained to take you to the hospital that has the services that your symptoms require.
  • EMS staff members are trained to revive someone whose heart has stopped.
  • Patients with chest pain who arrive by ambulance usually receive faster treatment at the hospital and can avoid the intake process.
  • If you are experiencing heart attack symptoms, it's extremely unsafe to drive or be a passenger in a car in case you lose consciousness.

What can happen if I do not receive rapid treatment?

  • Each year, 1.1 million Americans suffer heart attacks. About 460,000 of those heart attacks are fatal, frequently because a patient did not seek medical treatment immediately.
  • Waiting 30 minutes to seek help after the onset of symptoms of a STEMI heart attack (ST segment elevation myocardial infarction) leads to a 10 percent loss of heart muscle. Waiting 60 minutes is 30 percent and six hours means you'll lose 90 percent of your heart muscle to oxygen deprivation.
  • It is best to call EMS for rapid transport to the emergency room.