A cough could save your life

Courtesy Presbyterian Heart & Vascular Group

Which of the following could be a sign of a heart attack: neck pain, chest pain or back pain? If you answered, “All three”, you get a gold star.

Although the most common sign of sudden cardiac arrest is chest pain or discomfort, it’s not always one of the symptoms. Other symptoms might include shortness of breath, nausea, sweating, dizziness, blurred vision, sudden weakness, trembling hands and/or pain or discomfort in other parts of the upper body. These symptoms can occur singly or in combination; or, there may be no symptoms at all.

Now that you know what to look for with a possible heart attack, the question then becomes: What should you do if you think you are having a heart attack?

Actions That May Help

If you are feeling pain in your chest and there is no one around to administer life-saving resuscitation, remember to cough. It could save your life.

The American Heart Association concurs that during a sudden arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm event that can sometimes lead to or be a result of a heart attack), it may be possible for a conscious, responsive person to cough forcefully and repetitively to maintain enough blood flow to the brain to remain alert until help can arrive. Blood flow is maintained by increased pressure in the chest that occurs during the forceful coughing.

At Presbyterian Heart & Vascular Group, our physicians have practiced this measure in the cardiac catheterization lab in appropriate situations where the patient is conscious and constantly monitored. Sometimes, patients have cardiac arrest symptoms while undergoing angiography — a dye test used to diagnose blocked heart arteries. When this happens, we may instruct the patient to cough every one to three seconds during the initial seconds of the event or until the event passes; however, this is not an effective treatment for all patients and does not take the place of definitive treatment.

If coughing isn’t appropriate or isn’t relieving your symptoms, here are a few other recommendations that may act as a chain of survival for you or a loved one when faced with a heart attack:

  • Sit down, rest and try to keep calm. If the pain does not go away promptly with rest or within three minutes of taking chest pain medication for a known heart condition (such as nitroglycerin) or chewing a baby aspirin, call 911 for emergency medical help. Never wait more than five minutes to make the call.
  • Loosen any tight clothing. This will help make breathing easier.
  • Begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) early. Learning CPR is a great gift you can give your family and friends. If performed properly when a person is unconscious and not breathing, CPR can help save a life until emergency medical help arrives.
  • Provide defibrillation. You can be trained to operate a portable, computerized, automated external defibrillator (AED) to apply an electric shock to restart a heart that has developed an abnormal rhythm. Survival is directly linked to the amount of time between the onset of sudden cardiac arrest and the treatment with an electric shock to stop the abnormal heart rhythm. Many public places have AEDs available, and training courses are offered through the American Red Cross and other organizations.
  • Take an aspirin. Aspirin thins the blood and helps prevent blood clots from forming, which can help during a heart attack. In fact, research shows that getting an aspirin early in the treatment of a heart attack, along with other treatments provided by EMTs and Emergency Department physicians, can significantly improve your chances of survival. It’s important, however, to first call 911 and have the operator make sure you or your loved one doesn’t have an allergy or a condition that makes using aspirin too risky.

Know the Signs and Act

The best strategy is to be aware of the early warning signs for heart attack and cardiac arrest and respond to them by calling 911. If you’re driving alone and you start having severe chest pain or discomfort that begins to spread into your arm and up into your jaw, pull over and flag down another motorist for assistance, or get emergency help on your mobile phone. Fast, appropriate action can lessen heart damage and save your life!

Presbyterian Heart & Vascular Group is comprised of board-certified cardiovascular physicians. For more information about PHVG, which is part of Texas Health Physicians Group, call 214-345-6000 or visit PresbyterianHeartandVascular.com.