Heart attacks are the common term for a serious medical event also known as a myocardial infarction. A heart attack happens when the heart does not get enough oxygen supply to function properly. Without an adequate supply of oxygen-rich blood, the heart can become seriously damaged. This damage can be irreversible and can be fatal. Knowing the early warning signs of a heart attack can be lifesaving, so read on to find out all you need to know about heart attacks and how to catch them early.
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack is a serious medical event that can lead to permanent disability and death. A heart attack is a result of poor oxygen supply to the heart, which can be caused by a range of factors. To function normally, the heart requires a healthy supply of blood and oxygen which is delivered in the blood pumped through the coronary arteries and their branches. A heart attack or acute myocardial infarction (AMI) occurs when one or more of the coronary arteries becomes blocked. The severity of the heart attack, the permanent damage and the recovery journey depends on how much damage the heart sustains.
Anyone can be at risk of a heart attack, however, there are more heart attack-related deaths and hospitalisations among men than women. Heart attacks cause an average of 21 deaths per day in Australia, resulting from around 57,000 heart attacks per year or about one heart attack every ten minutes. Despite these serious and grim statistics, Australians are fortunate to enjoy one of the best hospital survival rates for heart attacks in the world. Research published by the Medical Journal of Australia found that survival rates for heart attacks for people in Australia and New Zealand were around 85%, though this was for populations under 65. Unfortunately, survival rates become poorer for people of older age or with lower overall wellbeing.
The best way to survive is to prevent one from happening in the first place. To do this, you need a good understanding of the signs and symptoms, and how to seek urgent care as quickly as possible.
The signs and symptoms of a heart attack
Recognising the warning signs of a heart attack can save your life and prevent permanent damage to your heart and cardiovascular system. Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look for. You can use this information to create a heart attack action plan to protect you and your family.
1. Chest pain or discomfort (angina)
This is the most common symptom. It can feel like a squeezing or pressure sensation in the chest that can spread to other parts of the body. For others, it may feel like a numb sensation, aching or a sensation of ‘fullness’. If you experience this for more than a few minutes, call 000.
2. Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, faint or anxious
These can be a sign that your blood pressure has dropped because the heart is struggling to pump enough blood through your body.
3. Indigestion, vomiting or nausea
Nausea and vomiting are more common signs for women than it is for men. Always seek treatment for unexplained and persistent nausea or vomiting.
4. Shortness of breath
Your breathing and your heart function are closely linked. If your heart is unable to get adequate oxygen to deliver fresh blood to the organs, including the lungs, you may feel short of breath.
5. Sweating or a cold sweat
Unexplained sweating can be a sign that your heart is working harder than normal to pump fresh blood to the body.
6. Pain that spreads to the arm
Pain that begins in the chest and spreads down the left side of the body can be a warning sign to take immediate note of.
7. Throat or jaw pain
If you have pain in the throat or jaw that has radiated up from the chest area, it could be serious. If it is a result of a cold or a muscular issue, jaw pain may not be a cause for concern.
8. Unusual fatigue or exhaustion
Getting tired from activities you once did easily – like walking upstairs – can be a sign of heart failure, especially among women. Make sure you seek medical attention for any unexplained weakness or fatigue.
9. Snoring or sleep apnea
Snoring that comes on suddenly and sounds like gasping for breath can be a sign of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea happens when you stop breathing whilst you sleep. This can place extra strain on the heart.
10. Irregular heartbeat
Some fluctuation in your heartbeat is normal and not necessarily a warning sign. However, if it is unexplained or happening for a long period of time, check with your doctor to make sure it is not a sign of damage to the heart.
11. Swollen lower extremities
Swelling in the legs, ankles and feet can be a sign of poor blood circulation. This can lead to bloating in the lower extremities as a result of stagnant blood supply.
12. Unexplained persistent cough
A cough is not a common sign. However, if you have an unexplained cough that produces pink or white mucus it could be a sign of poor heart function.
13. Pressure or pain in the back
The heart is located in the torso, and the pain from the heart and chest area can radiate to be felt in the back. This is slightly more likely to be a symptom for women.
It is important to remember that you don’t have to experience all of these symptoms to be at risk of a heart attack. Heart attacks are individual, personal experiences with some people experiencing symptoms for days or weeks prior and others experiencing few to no symptoms. Even the most common symptom – chest pain – is absent in as many as 1 in 3 men and 4 in 10 women who have a heart attack. Never ignore any of the potential signs and symptoms of heart attack, especially if you know you may be at a higher risk.
If symptoms are severe, getting worse, or last for more than 10 minutes, call Triple Zero (000) immediately.
What causes a heart attack?
The causes and risk factors for a heart attack can vary widely between individuals. Knowing the risk factors and causes can help you make lifestyle changes that may reduce your risk of a heart attack. Knowing that you are at higher risk can also empower you to know the signs and symptoms to look for, and help you create an effective heart attack action plan. Some of the causes and risk factors for a heart attack are:
Coronary heart disease and plaque rupture
Coronary heart disease is the most common cause of a heart attack. Coronary artery disease is when deposits of fatty tissue, cholesterol and other matter accumulate in the arterial walls. The walls of the artery supply oxygen to the heart. These deposits can harden into plaque, and eventually lead to a piece breaking off and forming a blood clot that blocks the artery.
Coronary artery spasm
This is a sudden tightening of the muscles in your heart’s arteries. These are usually brief and temporary but can lead to a heart attack when they narrow the arteries and prevent adequate blood flow to the heart.
Spontaneous coronary artery dissection
This is an emergency condition caused by a sudden tear in the wall of a coronary artery. This can cause heart attacks in people with few other risk factors.
Certain lifestyle factors, whilst not direct causes, can increase your risk of having a heart attack. These include:
- A diet high in saturated fat, sodium and added refined sugars
- Sedentary lifestyle or inadequate physical activity
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- High cholesterol especially LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol)
- Diagnosis of diabetes
- Unhealthy weight
- Poor mental health
Screening for a Heart Attack
The sooner you can detect the warning signs of a heart attack, the better the chances of survival and the brighter your prospects for recovery. Getting regular medical checkups and tests is the best way to detect risk factors and early warning signs of a heart attack. Certain screening tests and diagnostic tools can be used to detect if you’ve had a heart attack and the extent of the damage to your heart and other organs. These screening tests and tools include:
- Electrocardiograms (ECG) are used to record the electrical signals travelling through your heart. It shows how well your heart is beating.
- Blood tests can determine levels of certain substances in your blood that indicate the level of damage to your heart.
- Exercise stress tests can be used to determine how well your heart works under physical exertion. It often involves a type of ECG monitoring your heart activity whilst on a treadmill.
- Echocardiograms or ultrasounds are a type of x-ray that gives a picture of your heart’s valves and chambers and how strongly your heart is pumping blood.
- Nuclear cardiac stress tests are a type of test that can give your doctor a picture of how much blood flows into your heart and how well your heart functions.
- Coronary angiograms can be used to help detect where blockages have occurred in your coronary arteries.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a useful tool to determine how well your heart is working and what type of treatment might be more suitable.
- Coronary computed tomography angiogram (CCTA) is a non-invasive test that can help detect signs of coronary artery disease.
What to do when you have a Heart Attack
If you suspect you are having or have had a heart attack, always dial triple zero (000) immediately. Ask for an ambulance to transport you to the hospital to get treatment as quickly as possible. The priority immediately after a heart attack is to restore blood supply to the heart as quickly as possible to minimise damage. Calling an ambulance ensures you can start getting treatment as soon as the paramedics arrive. They will also be able to help determine whether it is a heart attack or something less serious. If you are unsure, assume it is a heart attack. It is always better to be safe than sorry, so never delay seeking treatment if you have any signs or symptoms.
Treatment for a Heart Attack
The first and most critical step of treating a heart attack is restoring the blood supply to the heart. The longer the heart is without adequate oxygen, the greater and more permanent the damage. Once this is restored and the individual is stable, there is a range of options that may be considered depending on the circumstances. These frequently include:
Medications called thrombolytics thin the blood and can help to quickly dissolve blood clots that may be blocking coronary arteries. Other medications like aspirin or anticoagulants may be prescribed to reduce the risk of further blockages. Beta-blockers may be used to slow the heart rate, and other medications may be used to lower your blood pressure.
In some cases, surgical procedures may be used to restore blood flow to the heart. These can include a coronary angioplasty, in which a stent is implanted to help keep the artery open. Some people may also undergo a type of bypass surgery, which redirects the blood flow around an existing blockage or clot to keep an adequate supply of oxygenated blood flow to the heart.
Making changes to your lifestyle is an important part of your recovery journey and preventing further damage to your heart.
- Quitting smoking
- Enjoying a healthy diet
- Managing your cholesterol and blood pressure
- Keeping physically active
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Drinking alcohol in moderation
- Managing stress and mental health
How Homage can assist with your recovery
A heart attack is a terrifying experience for the individual experiencing the attack and their loved ones. Even after the acute treatment period is over, there is often a long recovery journey which can be physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. If you or a loved one is recovering from a heart attack, there is help available. Homage’s team of dedicated Care Pro’s can provide personalised, professional and compassionate care from the comfort of your own home. We can assist you or a loved one with personal and nursing care, transportation to follow-up medical appointments and assist with post-surgery care. We can even help with some domestic tasks and housekeeping, to take some of the pressure off so you can focus on healing your body and spending time with the people you love.
Reach out to find out more about how Homage can help you or a loved one recovering from a heart attack by speaking with our Care Advisory team via our website or by calling us on 1300 705 029. Our Care Hotline is operational from 9 am to 9 pm (weekdays) and 6 pm (weekends and public holidays).
Helpline and additional information
To get more information and advice about preventing, treating or recovering from a heart attack, check out the Heart Foundation. They are Australia’s peak body for heart conditions, and their website is a great source of information and support. Their website has a range of resources about cardiac rehabilitation programs, support groups, and advice on managing life after a heart attack. Nobody should have to deal with the challenges of facing a heart attack alone, so reach out for support today.
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