Heart Smarts - Know the signs of a heart attack so you can get care right away

We know what a heart attack looks like on television and in the movies, when a character suddenly clutches his chest or collapses to the floor, writhing in pain. In real life, sometimes the signs can be more subtle.

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is severely reduced or cut off completely by a blood clot or other obstruction.

“The most common signs of a heart attack are sudden, unexplained shortness of breath or a tightening or pressure in the chest, jaw or across the shoulders or back,” says Jerry Miklin, MD, a cardiologist at Lutheran Medical Center. “Only about 10 percent of patients ever have that often-quoted feeling that ‘an elephant is sitting on my chest.’ In fact, most patients who come to the hospital with active heart attacks have no idea what’s actually going on—they just know that something is wrong.”

Reducing the Time to Treatment

It’s critical to get to the hospital in the early stages of a heart attack, when treatment is most effective. Lutheran is an Accredited Chest Pain Center, a designation granted by the Society of Cardiovascular Patient Care that means it follows strict standards designed to diagnose heart attacks and reduce the time to treatment. Lutheran has four state-of-the-art cardiac catheterization labs where a blocked artery can be opened, restoring blood flow. The labs have staff ready to go 24/7.

The national goal to open a blocked artery in a cardiac cath lab is 90 minutes from the time a patient arrives in the hospital. Dr. Miklin notes that at Lutheran, treatment times are 25 percent faster than this national standard. 

Procedures for Atrial Fibrillation

Persistent shortness of breath and fatigue also can be symptoms of atrial fibrillation (AF), which occurs when the heart’s upper chambers (atria) contract very quickly or irregularly. AF is caused by abnormal tissue in the heart that produces electrical signals that disrupt the heart’s regular heart rhythm.

“Symptoms of atrial fibrillation often are dismissed, but they can actually be more debilitating than coronary disease or other heart conditions.”
— Bohuslav Finta, MD, an electrophysiologist—a specialist in the heart’s electrical system—at Lutheran.

To treat AF, Dr. Finta offers two types of ablation procedures that destroy the abnormal tissue that disrupts the heart’s rhythm. Traditional cardiac ablation targets the tissue using radiofrequency (heat) energy. In contrast, cryoablation involves freezing tissue by delivering a liquid refrigerant applied through a balloon; this technique is especially useful for AF that originates in the pulmonary veins.

“We define an ablation procedure as successful if the patient experiences no AF symptoms and requires no repeat procedures or medications a year after the procedure,” Dr. Finta says. “Our current success rate is 80 percent. We’ve also observed that overall heart function improves, and patients have a much better quality of life.”

If you think you or someone you know may be having a heart attack, call 911. Accredited Chest Pain Centers, such as Lutheran Medical Center, provide cardiac expertise and the latest in diagnostics, interventions, surgery and rehabilitation. Learn more at lutheranjournal.org/heartcare.