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Show full transcript for Heart Attacks video

In this lesson, we're going to take a closer look at heart attacks, including:

  • What they are and why they happen
  • If there's anything we can do to help control or prevent them
  • The signs and symptoms of a heart attack for both men and women

What Causes a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs when something occludes a blood vessel that feeds the heart. When this happens, the heart muscle begins to starve of oxygen, which causes pain plus any number of other symptoms, the totality of which is known as heart attack.

Some common ways patients may describe their symptoms include:

  • A squeezing feeling or tightness in their chest
  • Like something is sitting on their chest
  • Pain that may radiate into arms, or the neck, jaw, and teeth in some cases

Classic Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack

Women often experience their own unique set of signs and symptoms that typically differs from what men may experience. So, consider this list to be men centric, as in the classic symptoms of a heart attack. The more typically female symptoms will follow.

  • Heavy sweating
  • Crushing chest pain
  • Pain that may radiate into other areas, most typically the arms
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

Women can experience the symptoms listed above, however, the most common symptoms of a heart attack for women are:

  • Back pain, like a muscle strain or pulled muscle
  • Feeling achy
  • Indigestion

Warning: One problem is the way in which heart attacks are depicted in movies and on TV, as it's always a sweaty guy clutching his chest. But that's mostly only true for half the population. And if the other half (some would say, better half) are expecting those same symptoms and getting something that feels more like the flu than a heart attack, this could delay a proper response, and the patient could suffer because of that delay.

Conditions with Similar Signs and Symptoms

There are a number of other ailments that have been known to mimic a heart attack, including:

  • Angina
  • Pneumonia
  • Pleuritis
  • Broken ribs

Pro Tip #1: Angina is a condition marked by severe chest pain, often spreading to the shoulders, arms, and neck, and is caused by a reduced blood supply to the heart. It's still a concern. Just not as concerning.

Warning: It's better to rule out a heart attack after being checked out by EMS personnel or a physician than it is to dismiss symptoms as something minor. When in doubt, check it out.

Once a heart attack is suspected, call 911 immediately and activate EMS. Get an ambulance on the way. If it turns out to be indigestion, you can always send them away when they arrive. Or better yet, they can examine the patient and rule a heart attack out.

If a heart attack is suspected and EMS isn't activated, all that's being accomplished is slowing down a response time and treatment should things worsen. Someone's life may ultimately depend on those wasted minutes or seconds.

Heart Attack Risk Factors

You can really separate this into two separate categories – factors we can control and factors we cannot.

Controllable Risk Factors

  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Stress
  • Smoking
  • Blood pressure
  • Diabetes

These are all huge factors when it comes to preventing cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and stroke. Controlling diabetes and blood pressure, if high. Stopping smoking, if applicable. And eating better, exercising more, and relieving stress in healthy ways. These are all areas of improvement everyone can control.

Uncontrollable Risk Factors

  • Genetics
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Race

When it comes to uncontrollable risk factors, the hand your dealt is the hand you're going to have to play. And unfortunately, certain people will always be predisposed to having a higher risk of heart attacks.

Helping Heart Attack Patients in Other Ways

Once you recognize the symptoms of a heart attack, you activate EMS, and both you and the patient wait comfortably for them to arrive, right? Well, not always.

Pro Tip #2: For some reason it's human nature to deny the existence of a heart attack – just a bit of acid reflux most likely – which only delays getting help. It's also common for heart attack suspects to want to drive themselves to the hospital. Both are obviously dangerous and NOT recommended.

While Waiting for the Ambulance

One of the first treatments that even paramedics will use is aspirin. Aspirin may prevent a worsening of the heart attack and it could even relieve some of the symptoms. If you have aspirin, and if the patient can take it, offer it to them.

Aspirin is effective because it basically acts as platelet lubricant once it's absorbed into the bloodstream. It better enables the platelets to slide by each other rather than getting stuck together and creating an even bigger clot.

Does the patient have nitroglycerin tabs or spray? Can you get it for them if they cannot?

Usually the best thing you can do for someone who's having a heart attack, or showing the symptoms, is reassure them that you'll be with them until help arrives. Tell them they're in good hands, in good care, but don't lie to them and tell them everything will be OK.

Simply keep them calm and make them as comfortable as possible until EMS personnel arrive.