In the immediate drama of a heart attack, the past and future can seem irrelevant. At that moment, the focus is on lifesaving treatment.
"The most critical stage is during the heart attack, of course, because the patient's life is at risk," says Claudia Gidea, MD, a cardiologist at the Rush Heart Center for Women. "But once the patient has survived and recovered, risk-factor modification and long-term management become equally important."
Stage 1: Recognize the Signs
The most common sign of a heart attack is chest discomfort. Pain, pressure, squeezing or fullness may radiate to the neck, back or jaw, or to one or both arms. Other symptoms may include shortness of breath, a cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness.
Of course, not everyone will have exactly the same symptoms. For example, women are somewhat more likely to have shortness of breath, nausea, and back or jaw pain.
Once symptoms begin, it’s critical to recognize them for what they are and call 911 right away, Gidea says. Every moment of delay risks greater damage to the heart.
Stage 2: Get Immediate Treatment
Recognizing the importance of speedy treatment, Rush has put in place several strategies to meet this critical responsibility. In fact, Rush is the only academic medical center in Chicago to receive national accreditation as a chest pain center, based, in part, on its commitment to rapid care.
At the emergency department, tests are performed to determine the exact nature of the problem so the right treatment can be used. Often, that involves a procedure that uses a balloon and stent to open a closed artery and restore blood flow to the heart muscle.
"To get the needed treatment to the patient as soon as possible, 'door-to-balloon' time is very short at Rush," Gidea says, referring to the time between entering the emergency department and receiving angioplasty.
Other treatments include surgery and special clot-busting medications. Tests to assess the extent of heart muscle damage are also performed.
Stage 3: Pursue a Healthier Life
The final stage involves long-term management, Gidea says. People who've had one heart attack are at higher risk for a second, so patients will typically be placed on a medication regimen and enrolled in programs to help them make needed lifestyle changes to reduce their risk of future heart trouble.
"All of these steps are designed to prevent a second heart attack, to improve survival and to improve a patient’s well-being," Gidea says.
No matter what stage you find yourself in, Rush can help.
Know Your Risk
Risk factors for heart attack include a family history, increasing age, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, diabetes, inactivity, being overweight and smoking.
Additionally, women who smoke and use birth control pills have a higher risk of heart attack than women who take birth control pills but don’t smoke.
About the Doctor
Claudia Gidea, MD, has research interests that include cardiac pacing and resynchronization therapy, heart failure, and various methods of heart imaging.
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