Pay attention to chest symptoms and save a life

No matter how hectic the new year becomes, here’s a quiet resolution that could save your life: Listen to your heart. It may be telling you something vital that you need to share with loved ones and caregivers.

A new study has found that half of the patients who suffered sudden cardiac arrest, which kills 350,000 Americans annually, had experienced tell-tale symptoms as much as a month before; fewer than one in five reached out to caregivers for assistance or therapies that might have saved them.

This information came out of  research on 840 patients in Oregon, aged 35 to 65. They were tracking their symptoms and suffered cardiac arrest between 2002 and 2012. Patients suffered a variety of warning symptoms, including difficulty breathing and chest pain, but failed to heed them or to seek care. Other symptoms experienced: heart palpitations, and flu-like sensations (nausea, back pain and or abdominal pain). Surprisingly few of those with symptoms, roughly 20 percent, also managed to call 911 emergency services or to get others to do so for them when their cardiac event occurred. But those who did had a five-fold greater chance of survival, the study found.

Researchers said they were surprised and intrigued by the early signaling of cardiac arrest, a condition known and named for its swift onset. It also has poor outcomes, which the lead study author described, thusly: “This is the ultimate heart disease, where you die within 10 minutes. And less than 10 percent actually survive.”

Researchers cautioned that they need more study to determine which patients and which symptoms need the most urgent attention. They said that, particularly during the cold and flu season, the sudden cardiac arrest symptoms could be indicative of other conditions, including over-exercise and heartburn. But those with a history of heart problems might want to exercise greater caution and hesitate less to call loved ones, seek medical attention, or emergency help if they experience heart-related symptoms.

Sudden cardiac arrest, an electrical malfunction that causes the heart to stop beating normally, is different from a heart attack, where the heart keeps beating but part of the heart tissue dies from a blockage of one or more of the arteries feeding the muscular tissue. The American Heart Association long have campaigned to increase public awareness of the symptoms of heart attack, stroke, and cardiac arrest. Recent research also has shown that women’s warnings for cardiac events differ from men’s — women experience chest pressure, flu-like weariness, and other signs of distress, not the major chest pain that radiates into the arm, as is common for men. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, claiming more than 600,000 lives in the last year for which there is current data.

While there have been significant advances in averting and treating heart conditions — preventive steps such as with diet, exercise, and medications, as well as therapies up to and including surgeries and transplants — the cardiac arrest study underscores the pivotal role patients play in being aware of their own conditions and communicating them to caregivers.

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