Act fast if you experience any possible heart attack symptoms. Fast treatment can not only save your life but also help prevent heart damage, too.
A heart attack happens about every 40 seconds in the U.S., according to the American Heart Association (AHA). They occur when blood flow to the heart is blocked. The cause is almost always the result of atherosclerosis, the artery clogging accumulation of cholesterol, fat, and other substances known as plaque.
When arteries are narrowed, less blood and oxygen reach your heart, a condition known as ischemia. When a complete blockage occurs in a coronary artery, the result is a common and potentially deadly type of heart attack — technically known as an ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI). ST-elevation refers to an abnormally high ST segment noted on an electrocardiogram (ECG) that helps cardiologists make the diagnosis.
It’s no surprise that prompt treatment for a heart attack can save lives, but now research shows getting emergency care for a suspected myocardial infarction quickly is key to preventing significant heart damage, future hospitalizations. and disability. So, it makes more sense than ever to recognize potential heart attack symptoms and seek care immediately if you experience any, instead of trying to second guess what might be wrong.
The importance of getting high-tech heart care quickly
Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), also known as coronary angioplasty, is a nonsurgical procedure that improves blood flow to your heart by clearing a blocked artery, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute explains.
PCI involves inserting a catheter tube equipped with a tiny balloon into an artery narrowed or blocked by plaque. When the balloon is inflated, it clears the blockage and restores blood flow; a tiny wire mesh tube is then inserted in the artery, and left there permanently, to keep the artery open.
PCI may be used to relieve symptoms caused by heart disease and to prevent a heart attack. In the case of someone who is experiencing a heart attack, fast treatment with PCI can help reduce heart damage, especially from a life-threatening STEMI.
First used in l977, PCI is now standard care for most heart attacks, and a combination of technological advances and extensive experience in the use of PCI treatment means the procedure can be done quickly to save lives and reduce heart muscle damage.
But there’s a catch, according to research published in the AHA journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Interventions. How quickly a person gets to the ER from the time they first experience any possible heart attack symptoms is crucial to how successful PCI will be at treating a heart attack and halting potentially serious and even life-threatening cardiac damage.
Call 911 at any sign of a heart attack
"We know the time to open the blocked coronary artery with PCI in heart attack patients is an important indicator for how a patient does after their heart attack. There are two measures for this time,” explained study author Gregg W. Stone, MD, professor of cardiology, population health sciences, and policy at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “One is symptom-to-balloon time, which is before the patient arrives to the hospital after symptoms start to when that patient has a PCI; second is door-to-balloon time, the time from hospital arrival to PCI.”
To find out how crucial the time factor is in heart attack treatment, Stone and his research colleagues studied the results of 10 studies involving more than 3,100 STEMI research subjects. The patients’ hearts were assessed a few days after their PCI to measure the size of the heart attack (i.e. the severity of damage to the heart muscle). Some of the studies analyzed by the Mount Sinai team also measured the patients’ ejection fraction (a measure of the percentage of blood the heart is able to pump with each contraction) and TIMI flow (a measurement of blood flow inside the coronary artery). All the patients had medical follow-ups for at least six months.
The results showed the average time from a person noticing heart attack symptoms to receiving PCI was 185 minutes, while the median time between entering the door of the ER or hospital to having the procedure was 46 minutes. And the longer the symptom-to-balloon time, the more the size of the heart attack increased.
What’s more, for every hour delay in symptom-to-balloon time — primarily because of people not acting quickly to get to the ER when potential heart attack symptoms developed — the one-year rate of death or hospitalization for heart failure was increased by 11 percent.
Bottom line? Heart attack symptoms need prompt action
The research also showed that seniors, women, and people with heart disease or diabetes tended to receive help for heart attack symptoms more slowly.
But it’s not unusual for people, whatever their age or health status, to initially ignore heart attack symptoms, because not all signs of heart attacks are crushing chest pain, as you might have seen portrayed in the movies.
"We must emphasize efforts to increase public awareness of heart attack symptoms and shorten the time it takes for patients to access emergency care,” Stone pointed out.
While it’s true heart attacks may start suddenly with intense pain, the American Heart Association points out most start slowly with mild pain or discomfort.
Pay attention to your body and call 911 if you experience any of this signs and symptoms of a heart attack:
- Chest discomfort in the center of the chest. This can feel like squeezing, fullness, uncomfortable pressure, or pain. It can last more than a few minutes or go away and then come back.
- Discomfort in other parts of the upper body. Heart attack pain or discomfort can occur in one or both arms, your neck, jaw, stomach, or back.
- Shortness of breath. This may occur whether you have chest pain or discomfort.
- Other possible signs. Nausea, feeling lightheaded, and breaking out in a cold sweat can also be symptoms of a heart attack.
January 19, 2022
Janet O’Dell, RN