Why is it critical to act promptly?
There are two good reasons everybody should know the most basic information about heart attacks.
First, odds are very high that either you or someone you love will suffer from a heart attack during your lifetime.
Second, whether you (or your loved one) survive that heart attack may depend on what you – and your doctors – do during the first few hours.
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack (a myocardial infarction, or MI) is the death of heart muscle, caused by a blockage in one of the coronary arteries.
A heart attack occurs when a blood clot forms at the site of raised areas of degeneration and cholesterol deposits in a coronary artery. The clot blocks the artery, and blood flow stops.
The heart muscle being supplied by that artery immediately becomes starved for oxygen and if blood flow is not restored within a few hours, the heart muscle dies.
What are the consequences of a heart attack?
When a portion of heart muscle dies, several bad things can happen.
If the amount of damage is large enough, the patient can develop immediate heart failure and shock. (When doctors refer to “shock,” they are talking about extremely low blood pressure, caused by the heart’s inability to pump sufficient blood to the body’s tissues.)
When heart failure occurs immediately after a heart attack, there is an extremely high risk of early death.
Even if the MI does not cause immediate heart failure, when left untreated it can cause arrhythmia and serious long term damage that may be either unrepairable or require a very long recovery time that will lead to dramatically reduced quality of life.
Why are the first few hours critical?
The first 3 – 6 hours after the onset of the heart attack are utterly critical.
Most of the lethal arrhythmias seen with acute heart attacks occur during the first few hours. If these arrhythmias occur while the victim is under medical attention, they can virtually always be stopped in time to prevent a catastrophe.
Further, if the artery can be opened within the first few hours after the blockage occurs, much of the dying heart muscle can be saved, much of the permanent heart damage can be avoided, and the patient’s risk of death or permanent disability can be greatly diminished. But if treatment is delayed beyond 6 hours, the amount of heart muscle that can still be saved drops off significantly.
What this means, of course, is that if a patient having a heart attack tries to “ride it out” at home for a while, hoping the symptoms are due to indigestion or muscle strain, or if the medical personnel delay instituting therapy for any reason, the delay can lead to devastating and permanent results.
You need to know what to do
In spite of your best efforts you or a loved one may still suffer heart attack. You need to know what to do. In most cases the chances of survival can be increased with prompt and effective CPR and early defibrillation.
Studies have shown clearly that early CPR followed by early defibrillation greatly increases the chances of survival. This highlights the importance of knowing what to do when someone is suffering from the symptoms of a heart attack.
The best way to learn these skills is to attend a First aid course and learn not only CPR but how to respond to an emergency situation calmly, promptly and effectively.