If you think that a heart attack only happens to "other people", it's time to re-evaluate that thought. Each year, nearly 720,000 people in the U.S. experience a heart attack, with 515,000 of them having their first episode. Heart attacks happen in all age groups and to people with no previously-diagnosed heart disease. Knowing what to do when you feel a heart attack start will increase your chances of surviving one. Here is what is happening during a heart attack and what you can do to survive it.
How Your Heart Muscle Works
Your heart is a muscle, and like other muscles in your body, it needs a constant flow of blood to it to function. The blood contains oxygen, which is critical to your heart. Special blood vessels, called the coronary arteries, provide the muscle with the oxygen it needs. If one or more of these arteries becomes damaged due to heart disease, the blood supply to the heart can be restricted. This reduces the amount of oxygen your heart receives.
A Heart Attack is a Warning
The harder the heart muscle works, the more oxygen it needs. If the coronary arteries can't provide enough oxygen, the heart muscle begins to fail. When this happens, it sends out a warning sign which you experience as chest pain. The more the heart is starved of oxygen, the stronger the pain will be.
Living Through a Heart Attack
During a moment of physical activity, such as working in the yard or going up a long flight of stairs, you begin to feel pressure in your chest. This is followed by aching or pain in your shoulders, neck and upper back. You may have pain in your left arm. The most important part of surviving a heart attack, and the most difficult, is to stay calm.
Keeping calm reduces your heart rate and blood pressure, which relieves the work load on the heart. As the heart's requirement for oxygen decreases, the pain slowly goes away. Other ways to reduce the heart's workload include:
- sit or recline with your feet up on something
- lay down with your legs elevated
- take slow deep breaths
Have someone call the emergency medical services for you or, if by yourself, call them as soon as you can get to a phone. Regardless of how minor the chest pain is, you need to be seen and evaluated by a heart doctor.
Preventing Future Pain
If the damage to the coronary arteries is minimal, your doctor may have you start on a program of diet and exercise to increase the blood flow to the heart. Your doctor may recommend that a stint be inserted into the affected blood vessels to hold them open and allow more blood through.
When the damage is severe and one or more coronary arteries are completely blocked, open heart surgery is required. The affected arteries are replaced with sections of blood vessels taken from another part of your body. This immediately restores the blood flow to the heart.
When you know why the heart is causing you pain, you can take steps to reduce the pain so you can get to hospital and receive additional help.