Each year heart attacks are responsible for over 100,000 hospital admissions in the UK alone, or one every five minutes.
Also known as myocardial infarction or MI, a heart attack occurs when a blockage, such as a blood clot, causes a loss of blood flow to the heart. Without a sufficient supply of blood, the heart muscle can be seriously damaged with potentially fatal consequences if immediate action is not taken.
A proper response to heart attacks, from people who are witnessing one, can improve the victim’s chance of surviving, both until emergency medical teams arrive and in the long run.
This article will help you to identify a heart attack and guide you through what you should do if you do witness one.
Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack
A blockage in an artery that prevents blood from accessing the heart is the main cause of a heart attack. At its most extreme, this blockage causes cardiac arrest, which should be treated by following the Chain of Survival. The heart muscles can be damaged and even die off without proper treatment.
The symptoms of a heart attack can include:
- Shortness of Breath
- Coughing or wheezing
- Nausea or vomiting
- Chest pain (particularly tight or squeezing)
- Pain in other parts of the body, specifically if the pain feels like it is travelling from the chest outwards around the body
Unfortunately, in some cases, symptoms do not manifest with any increasing intensity. A heart attack can feel like indigestion and sometimes, although less frequent, there might not even be any pain at all.
Emergency response training
In an ideal world, you will have completed a basic life support course. This course teaches you the correct procedure to follow (in several scenarios) when responding to an emergency.
If you haven’t attended this or a similar first aid awareness course, you can follow the simple steps below if the unexpected ever happens.
What to do if you suspect someone is having a heart attack
If you think someone around you is having a heart attack, the first thing you should do is call an ambulance. Even if you are not 100% certain it is a heart attack, paramedics would rather be called and find it is a false alarm than to lose a life.
While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, you should give the victim an aspirin tablet to chew. Providing they aren’t allergic to aspirin, it will help thin the blood and restore blood supply to the heart.
Keeping the person at rest (sitting down) helps avoid unnecessary strain on the heart. Beyond this, sit tight and explain to the ambulance crew when they arrive what the individual was doing before the attack.
How should you treat cardiac arrest?
In cases of cardiac arrest, you will have to be a little more hands-on. Someone who has gone into cardiac arrest will appear not to be moving, to not be breathing, and don’t respond to any simulation.
If this is the case, then you will have to try and restart the heart. There are two ways to do this, but which one you carry out will be determined solely by whether or not an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) is to hand.
If an AED is accessible, you should use it to restart the heart. Most large organisations will have one somewhere on-site and they are now becoming more common in public buildings and community spaces.
An AED is a small, portable, electrical device that, when placed on a person’s body, will monitor their heart rate and give an electric shock in an attempt to restore normal rhythm. AEDs do this without any input on the part of the user, and instructions for attaching them will normally be printed on the device so that anyone can use them.
If you don’t have access to an AED, then you will have to perform chest compressions. This is essentially CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) without the application of rescue breaths.
To properly apply chest compressions to an adult, there are three steps:
- 1) Interlock your fingers and place the heel of your hand on the centre of the victim’s chest, and place the other hand on top.
- 2) Using all of your body weight, press straight down on the chest to a depth of around 5-6 cm. One of the most common mistakes is only using the arms to apply the weight, which doesn’t put the proper amount of pressure on the heart. You should be aiming to do this at a rate of 100-120 compressions a minute, so ideally twice a second. While you want to be careful that you don’t injure the person during compressions, you don’t want to risk applying too little pressure. Although you probably won’t do serious internal damage by being a little too forceful with compressions, it is better to risk cracking a rib than to let them die of a heart attack.
- 3) Continue doing this until the ambulance arrives and a paramedic tells you to stop.
Unfortunately, it's not just adults that suffer from heart attacks. Children can have heart attacks, and go into cardiac arrest too.
The main difference between a child and an adult is that if you perform chest compressions in the same way, you will end up doing more damage than cracking a rib. It will probably result in you crushing the child to death.
Therefore, the process of compressions is slightly different. You need to find the breastbone, which will be one finger’s width above the joining of the bottom two ribs. From there, you will push down by 4cm if they are an infant, or 5 cm if they are a child.
For every 30 compressions, you should give two rescue breaths by tilting the head back and lifting the chin. Prior to providing any medical help, you should call attempt to call 999.
The actual compressions administered to a child are slightly different. If they are less than a year old, then apply the compressions with two fingertips. You can use the heel of ONE hand if you can’t get the proper depth on compressions.
If the child is one year old or over, you should also apply compressions using only the heel of one hand. Make sure to lift your fingers so that you don’t apply pressure over the ribs.
Rather than use your whole weight to apply pressure, position yourself vertically above the child and extend your arm. Apply the compressions by pushing down with the strength in the arm.
If you are dealing with an older child, you can use two interlocked hands to do this, but ensure that you don’t apply pressure over the ribs with your fingers.
Please refer to our First Aid page for Flexebee first aid training courses. For further training and care-related courses for care workers and care providers, ranging from Care Home Management training to individual specialist care courses like Infection Control, get in contact here.