Understanding the Heart: Heart Attack, Sudden Cardiac Arrest and Heart Failure
Heart disease takes many people well before their time. The recent deaths of celebrities Carrie Fisher, George Michael and Alan Thicke – all from heart conditions – has put heart health and its related problems into the public eye, and for good reason. Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for more than 17.3 million deaths per year.
However, not all heart health issues are the same, even though the terminology is frequently used interchangeably by the public and the media. Understanding the differences is important, since the short-term and long-term treatments, prognosis and survival rates are different for each condition.
A Problem with Circulation and Blockages
A heart attack occurs when there is a blockage that prevents blood from reaching the heart. These blockages are usually caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries, which forms when cholesterol combines with fat and other substances in the blood. If you have a family history of heart attacks, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, or you smoke and don’t exercise, you are at greater risk for having a heart attack.
There are several warning signs of a heart attack:
- Chest pain, tightness and pressure
- Pain that radiates to your left arm or left jaw
- Unusual sweating
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Panic or a feeling like you are going to die
A heart attack is an emergency. If someone is having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. Keep the person calm. If they are not allergic to aspirin, have them chew and swallow a baby aspirin. If they stop breathing, perform CPR.
Sudden Cardiac Arrest
An Electrical Problem
Sudden cardiac arrest is caused by electrical disturbances in the heart that cause it to suddenly stop beating. The person experiencing sudden cardiac arrest will collapse and stop breathing within seconds of the incident, and may die within a few minutes if they don’t receive immediate treatment.
There are several warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of consciousness
- Palpitations and a fluttery feeling in the chest
- Flu-like symptoms
Sudden cardiac arrest is also an emergency and you should call 911 before doing anything else. The person experiencing sudden cardiac arrest needs to be treated with a defibrillator to restore their normal heart rhythm. You should administer CPR until defibrillation can be performed. If you are in a public space, there may be an automated external defibrillator (AED) nearby that you can use; follow the posted instructions carefully.
A Weakening of the Pump
Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump blood efficiently enough to reach other organs and tissues. When blood pumped through the arteries slows and blood returning to the heart through the veins backs up, it’s called congestive heart failure. This backup causes swelling in the legs and other parts of the body. When this swelling happens around the lungs, fluid collects in the lungs and interferes with breathing.
Symptoms of heart failure include:
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing or wheezing
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid heart rate
Heart failure is a medical condition that is treated with medication, surgery and lifestyle changes. If heart failure leads to a heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest, it becomes an emergency.
If you suspect you or someone nearby is having a heart problem, your first response should always be to get emergency medical care quickly by dialing 9-1-1.
For more information about the Crozer-Keystone Cardiovascular Care, call 1-866-95-PULSE (1-866-957-8573) or visit crozerkeystone.org/Heart.