Can You Recognize a Heart Attack or Stroke?

Can You Recognize a Heart Attack or Stroke?

Information from the August 2014 “NIH News in Health” newsletter

Barb Green, Parish Nurse

Milton, WI



When it comes to life-threatening conditions like heart attack or stroke, every minute counts. Acting fast could save your life or someone else’s. Get to know the signs and symptoms of these health threats so you can get medical help immediately.


According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nationwide, someone dies from a heart attack about every 90 seconds and stroke kills someone about every 4 minutes. Quick medical help can prevent some of these deaths and also limit permanent damage to the body.


Heart attack and stroke are caused by interruptions to the normal flow of blood to the heart or brain — two organs essential to life. Without access to oxygen-rich blood and nutrients, heart or brain cells begin to malfunction and die. The changes ultimately lead to the familiar symptoms of a heart or brain emergency.


Common symptoms of heart attack include sustained, crushing chest pain, difficulty breathing, pain, stiffness or numbness in the neck, back or one or both arms or shoulders, cold sweat, nausea, dizziness. Women may have different symptoms. Instead of chest pain they may feel extremely exhausted or have indigestion or nausea or a vague sense of gloom and doom.


Stroke symptoms include sudden difficulty seeing, speaking or walking and feelings of weakness, numbness, dizziness and confusion. Some get a severe headache that’s immediate and strong, different from any kind you’ve ever had.


At the first sign of any of these symptoms, fast action by you, someone you know, or a passerby can make a huge difference. There are now medicines, procedures and devices that can help limit heart and brain damage following an attack — as long as medical help arrives quickly. If the heart is starved for blood for too long — generally more than 20 minutes — heart muscle can be irreversibly damaged. You need to be in the hospital because there’s a risk of cardiac arrest which can be deadly. With stroke, the longer you wait, the more brain cells are dying and the greater chance for permanent damage or disability.


There are two kinds of strokes — the most common,

ischemic, is caused by a clot that clogs a blood vessel in the brain. The clot-dissolving drug tPA works best when given soon after symptoms begin. Those who

receive this drug within 3 hours of stroke onset are most likely to recover fully. The second kind of stroke — hemorrhagic — is caused when a blood vessel breaks and bleeds into the brain. This hemorrhage can enlarge during the first three hours. A hospital medical team can help contain the bleeding so every moment counts.


Even if you’re unsure, don’t feel embarrassed or hesitate to call 911 if you suspect a heart attack or stroke. Never drive yourself or someone else to the hospital. The emergency crew is trained to treat these symptoms and they could mean the difference between life and death.


Heart attack or stroke can happen to anyone but risk increases with age as does a family history of heart problems. You can decrease your risk by working with your doctor to get high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes under control. Keep important health information with you at all times including medications that you are taking, allergies and emergency contacts. Eat a healthy diet rich in protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetable and low in saturated fat. Get regular physical activity and don’t smoke.


Taking a basic CPR course will help you recognize the symptoms of these conditions and teach you how to help. Always call for help immediately. Yes, other

conditions can mimic the signs and symptoms of a heart attack or stroke but let the emergency physician figure that out in the emergency room.

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