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Heart attack symptoms: Why you should call 911 every time


October 31, 2019

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 735,000 Americans per year experience heart attacks, with two-thirds occurring for the first time. Heart attacks (myocardial infarctions) are caused by a sudden obstruction caused by plaque that clogs a coronary artery and prevents blood flow to the heart. It is a serious emergency requiring immediate medical attention.

The heart is a muscle, and when the blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to that muscle is cut off, the tissue begins to die. After a very short period of time, the damage is permanent, and the patient may not survive. During a heart attack, time is muscle: the longer treatment is delayed, the more heart muscle is permanently damaged.

If you were having a heart attack, how long would it take for someone to take you to the emergency room? Traffic lights, accidents, construction, and a dozen other issues could slow you down when time is most critical.

Calling 911 could not only save your life, but it could also improve your recovery by getting you to the hospital faster.

What to watch for

Nancy Pook, MD, FACEP, is an emergency physician and medical director of Kettering Health Network’s Network Operations Command Center. Often, she sees the results of patients who wait too long to seek help during or immediately following a heart attack, either by not recognizing the symptoms or choosing to wait too long for treatment.

“Symptoms include a severe dull, squeezing pain in the chest and shortness of breath that come on suddenly and persist,” Dr. Pook said. “It can be an overwhelming feeling for some people, while others might experience more subtle symptoms.”

Additional symptoms could include pain coming on with exercise but relieved by rest; dizziness or lightheadedness; cold sweats; and pain spreading to your shoulders, neck, jaw or arms. If you are experiencing any of those or the symptoms Dr. Pook described, don’t wait – call 911 immediately. Keep in mind some heart attack symptoms are often mistaken for heartburn and can go away just as easily.

“Sometimes the symptoms can be more subdued but could still be a significant problem,” she continued. “Those with diabetes might see fewer symptoms, and women often have a duller pain that is not as intense.”

During a heart attack, both men and women can experience a pressure that feels like a belt tightening around their chest or someone standing on it. However, some women may not have this sensation at all. Instead, their symptoms might include a pressure or pain in the lower abdomen, fainting, upper back pressure, or severe fatigue.

Calling 911 could save your life

If you experience these symptoms, it’s urgent to go to the emergency department as soon as possible. The heart can be damaged quickly, so calling 911 right away could mean the difference between life and death.

When you call 911 and paramedics arrive, they are immediately in contact with the emergency room and begin administering first-response care, such as aspirin or nitro glycerin. “The most critical things can be done by the paramedics within a few minutes, including starting an IV and transmitting an electrocardiogram (EKG) to the emergency department physician,” said Dr. Pook. “There are medical protocols in place for the first responders to follow, and all of this is delayed if you come in on your own.”

By the time you arrive via ambulance, much of the urgent diagnostic information has been sent to the attending doctors at the hospital. Within a few minutes of its transmission, your data is reviewed by the emergency department physicians, and the cardiac alert team is activated. Having the information within seconds means valuable time has been saved and more heart muscle has been preserved.

“We are a caring facility, and all of the right resources and connections are in place,” Dr. Pook said. “We’re dedicated to the communities and provide care that’s close to where you live. Every second counts when a heart attack occurs.”

For more information, click here to visit our heart attack symptoms website. If you or someone close to you experiences any of these symptoms, don’t hesitate to call 911. Learn more at ketteringhealth.org/emergency.