Heart Attack: 10 Things Doctors Want You to Know

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    Heart Attack Facts on Treatment and Prevention
    Doctors can effectively treat many heart attack patients, but they’d rather see people live a healthy lifestyle that makes treatment unnecessary. Here’s what doctors want you to know about heart attacks.

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    1. "There’s been a dramatic change in heart attack treatment."
    "Fourteen or 15 years ago, we would see these amazing saves, but everything would have to align to keep the patient alive. Those extraordinary circumstances have become more ordinary. It’s changing from a special situation to what is normal," says Brahmajee Nallamothu, MD, a cardiologist and researcher at the University of Michigan. "Our treatments are really good these days. The equipment is remarkable and the medications effective."  "We are making an impact,” adds Melissa Tracy, MD, a cardiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "We are stabilizing the number of deaths from heart attack."

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    2. "If you even suspect you might be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately."
    "For every second the heart doesn’t have blood flow, there’s damage being done. The quicker the patient seeks treatment, the quicker doctors can get the artery open and the less heart damage you can have," says Dr. Trent Pettijohn, a cardiologist with The Heart Hospital, Baylor Plano, in Texas. "The challenge is the patients who have long delays before they seek care," adds Dr. Nallamothu. "Patients should have a low threshold for getting to a doctor, then the doctor can evaluate and decide on treatment. Heart attacks should always be treated in a hospital."

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    3. "Be aware that not everybody has the same heart attack symptoms."
    "My patients often ask ‘How do I know I’m having a heart attack?’ The classic description is not always what you feel," says Dr. Nallamothu.  "Some people get short of breath, chest pain, or chest pressure," says Dr. Tracy. "Or, the sense of ‘the elephant sitting on my chest.’ Some people get jaw pain. Some people get shoulder pain," she adds. “There’s a higher percentage of women who have the non-typical heart attack symptoms and so, unfortunately, women can sometimes not know they’re having a heart attack because it’s not the classic symptoms," notes Dr. Pettijohn.

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    4. "After you call 911, take aspirin and take it as easy as you can."
    "It’s very important, if you think you’re having a heart attack, to chew a couple of aspirins right away. Many times a patient comes into the hospital and the artery has opened up because the aspirin helped break up the clot," says Dr. Pettijohn. Doctors advise not to drive yourself to the hospital. "Make sure you are in a safe environment, lay down or sit down, but you really have to call 911," says Dr. Nallamothu. It’s not safe to drive. "Rhythm issues are the biggest danger. The heart is very prone to being irritated and you can have fatal rhythm problems."

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    5. "The quicker the heart attack is treated the better the patient does."
    When you are treated for a heart attack, a lot goes on even before the cardiologist reaches you. "In the field, the EMS team will get an EKG to see whether there’s a heart attack or not. If there is a heart attack, they give aspirin right away and medicines to help the heart until they can get blood supply returned," says Dr. Nallamothu. "Then you activate the heart attack team, which comes in as soon as possible. You take that patient to the [catheter] lab and open up the artery with a balloon or stent."

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    6. "The heart can recover and improve shortly after a heart attack."
    Although heart muscle doesn’t regenerate, it can recover. "If you don’t have blood supply to the heart for a while, the heart muscle can actually be stunned and tries to conserve energy by weakening its squeezing capacity. Once you return blood flow to the area, many times you see improvement in heart function as that heart muscle gets blood supply back," says Dr. Pettijohn. "It will increase its squeezing capacity and strength. But there are areas of the heart that can be permanently damaged with a scar."

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    7. "The heart attack patients who create fundamental changes are the ones who recover the best."
    "Our medicines and technology are great, but we have to get patients healthier to prevent the first event, or a second heart attack,“ says Dr. Tracy. “The key is to take it seriously—watch your risk factors, lose 10 pounds, don’t smoke, watch your blood pressure, address diabetes, and exercise,” says Dr. Nallamothu. “I’ve followed patients over 10 years, and it’s very satisfying. With recent advances, people can have great prognoses. For patients now, if they are healthy 6 to12 months after a heart attack, other health problems can pose a bigger risk than cardiac concerns.”

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    8. "After a heart attack, ask your doctor about cardiac rehab."
    Cardiac rehabilitation—or rehab—programs help you make life-saving changes in your habits. "For me, educating patients is key," says Dr. Tracy. "We tailor exercise programs and diet modifications to each person. We incorporate family and friends for support. Life was meant to be lived and you have to enjoy it. Everything is OK in moderation, but there has to be a balance." Cardiac rehab can provide great support. "It’s a good place for patients to get their mojo back, to be in a supervised setting where they can feel safe," says Nallamothu.

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    9. "It’s important to get your enthusiasm and enjoyment for life back after a heart attack."
    "Stress, anxiety and depression cause a release of chemicals in your body that are detrimental to recovery. If you have those issues, there’s a higher incidence of readmission and other complications. So it’s important to get treatment for these problems so you can have a better recovery," says Dr. Pettijohn. Don’t hesitate to ask your healthcare provider about ways to overcome depression and sadness.

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    10. "Understand what the risk factors are for blockages that can cause heart attacks."
    "There are risk calculators online—we have one at Baylor. You put in your data—age, height, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, whether you have diabetes, whether you have a family history of heart disease, and whether you smoke. It can tell you what your risk is," says Pettijohn. "If you’re in the intermediate or high risk group, you need to seek evaluation so doctors can hopefully prevent problems from occurring. Everybody needs to know what their risk score is." Saving lives through treatment is great, but avoiding a heart attack is most certainly better.

Heart Attack Facts | 10 Things Doctors Want You to Know

About The Author

Nancy LeBrun is an Emmy- and Peabody award-winning writer and producer who has been writing about health and wellness for more than five years. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
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Last Review Date: 2021 Mar 22
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.