Health Team

Doctor: Knowing the signs can save a life during heart attack, cardiac arrest

Posted February 14, 2018 10:29 a.m. EST
Updated February 15, 2018 5:39 p.m. EST

Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States, but doctors say recognizing the symptoms of a heart emergency and knowing how to respond could save a life.

According to a Cleveland Clinic survey, Americans don't know as much as they should about heart disease — 87 percent of the people surveyed believe that cardiac arrest is another term for heart attack, but they are very different.

"Cardiac arrest is when the heart is either beating wildly or not beating at all and there's no blood flow," said Dr. Steve Nissen, of the Cleveland Clinic.

With cardiac arrest, the person is unconscious. When that happens, CPR can keep blood and oxygen flowing through the body and brain until emergency help arrives.

But only about one in six people know how to do the recommended "chest compressions only" version of CPR.

"Many people didn't know the rate at which to do them," Nissen said. "The best rate is somewhere between 100 and 120 times per minute."

With a heart attack, a coronary artery has become blocked. Many people in the survey confused stroke symptoms, like slurred speech or one-side weakness, as signs of a heart attack.

"People who have heart attacks, most people are going to have pain, usually in the center of the chest," Nissen said. "It can go to the jaw or down the left, or down both arms. It's often associated with nausea or shortness of breath."

The survey also found that most people having a heart attack know to call 911 first, but only about a third of people know to chew an aspirin as well.

"Many people don't know that it's a good idea to chew an aspirin, not a baby aspirin, but a full-sized, 325 milligram of aspirin that in a few cases can actually stop a heart attack," Nissen said.

Nissen also recommended taking nitroglycerin medication during a heart attack, if it's nearby.

The survey also shows only 27 percent of people say there's an automated external defibrillator, or AED, at their workplace. An AED can help shock the heart back into a normal rhythm and save someone's life during a cardiac arrest.