According to the World Health Organization, Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) is the leading cause of death worldwide. Heart attacks make up a significant proportion of these deaths. Being able to quickly recognize the signs and symptoms of a heart attack is incredibly important, as early medical treatment significantly improves the prognosis.

What is a heart attack?

The heart is a muscle which pumps blood around the body. Like every other muscle in the body, it requires a good blood supply to ensure enough oxygen & nutrients are delivered and waste metabolic products (such as Carbon Dioxide) are removed.

The heart receives its blood supply from the coronary arteries which branch off from the aorta (the main artery in your body).

If a coronary artery becomes blocked (eg: due to a clot), then the heart muscle beyond the point of the blockage will not receive an adequate blood supply. This will result in death of the heart muscle.

The medical term for a heart attack is 'myocardial infarction' (myocardium means heart muscle, infarction is tissue death due to lack of oxygen)

Signs and symptoms

Common signs & symptoms include:

  • Central chest pain, which may spread to the arms / jaw / back / abdomen. Does not ease or go away.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Casualty becomes pale and sweaty
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Irregular or weak pulse

Not all of these symptoms may be present. In fact, some heart attacks can be 'silent' with very little pain which is often mistaken for indigestion. There has been some research which suggests these 'silent' attacks are more common among women and diabetic patients.

If you have any reason to suspect a heart attack, you should treat for one. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

First aid treatment

Step 1: Call an ambulance / emergency medical help, say that you suspect someone is having a heart attack.

Step 2: Make the person comfortable, if possible ask them to sit on the floor. The best position is known as the “W” position, this involves the person sitting up with something under their knees to raise them. This reduces the strain on the heart.

Step 3: If you are able to, ask the casualty to chew on a 300mg (big) aspirin. If they have any other medication for their heart (a spray etc.) which a doctor has told them to use, then let the casualty use it.

The casualty may lose consciousness before the ambulance arrives. Try to be reassuring and calm, the casualty will be incredibly frightened and anxious which could aggravate their condition.

No two heart attacks are the same. Different people may suffer different symptoms, there is not always the 'classic' presentation described above.