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Heart Attack & Cardiac Arrest: How To Help When Minutes Matter

With Sarasota Memorial Emergency Medicine Physician Marshall Frank, DO, MPH, FAEMS

According to the CDC, more than 800,000 people in the United States have a heart attack every year, and heart disease remains a leading cause of death for people of all walks of life.

Still, many people do not know how to recognize a heart attack or properly aid someone who is experiencing cardiac arrest.

But when either heart attack or cardiac arrest hits, immediate aid and a quick response from bystanders could make all the difference.

“Calling 911 and starting chest compressions right away are the most important things to do if you witness someone having a heart attack and undergoing cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Frank. “We know from that data that these things are life-saving, that even hands-only CPR significantly improves outcomes.”

Cardiac Arrest or Heart Attack?

Although these two terms are sometimes used interchangeably in popular culture or casual conversation, they actually refer to two distinct, but serious, heart problems. Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating entirely. When this happens, blood flow to the brain and other organs stops, and the person loses consciousness. A heart attack occurs when the heart itself does not get enough oxygen. Without this oxygen, the muscles of the heart begin to die. Doctors call this an “infarction.” During a heart attack, however, the person may be awake and talking. They may not even know that they’re having one. 1 in 5 are called “silent heart attacks” for just this reason.

But most often, symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath can be recognized and acted upon.

Helpful tip:

Instead of trying to count beats per minute, the American Heart Association says you can time your compressions to the beat of the Bee Gees tune, “Stayin’ Alive.”

Signs & Symptoms of a Heart Attack

Knowing and being able to recognize a heart attack is crucial to responding quickly.

And while chest pain remains the most well-known sign of a heart attack, there are other indicators to keep an eye out for, especially if they appear with chest pain.

“There are certain symptoms that we don’t like to see alongside chest pain,” says Dr. Frank. “Pain that radiates, pain that’s associated with sweating, and pain associated with vomiting.”

Some of the most common signs of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain, pressure and/or tightness
  • Chest pain that spreads to shoulder, neck or jaw
  • Pain radiating down both arms
  • Nausea or dizziness (especially accompanied by chest pain)
  • Back pain or pain between the shoulder blades
  • Discomfort/pressure in the lower chest or abdomen
  • Difficulty breathing or unusual fatigue
  • In women, total exhaustion or flu-like stomach pain

How To Help During A Heart Attack

The first step in responding to a heart attack—or any medical emergency—should always be to call 911.

If someone is having a heart attack, minutes matter, and getting professional medical help as quickly as possible is a top priority. Emergency Medical Services should be notified immediately.

“That is priority number one,” says Dr. Frank. “It’s one of the most life-saving things you can do.”

Next, help the person to sit down, either in a sturdy chair or on the floor against the wall. This not only eases strain on their heart, but also prevents potential injuries from falling, should they collapse or enter cardiac arrest.

How To Help During Cardiac Arrest

If someone collapses and their heart is not beating, they have entered cardiac arrest.Hands Only CPR

Again, the first step should always be to call 911.

The next step is to begin chest compressions, also known as hands-only CPR. (No rescue breathing required.)

“Start chest compressions as early as you can,” says Dr. Frank. “And if you’re on the phone with an emergency medical dispatcher, they’ll coach you through it.”

Continue hands-only CPR until emergency services arrives or the person is revived. If more than one bystander is present and able to help, take turns giving chest compressions every couple minutes, to avoid tiring out before EMS arrives.

“The best thing you can do is give high-quality continuous chest compressions,” says Dr. Frank. “The only thing you can do wrong is to do nothing at all.”

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Posted: Feb 21, 2023,
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