SATURDAY, Sept. 13, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- If that nagging pain in your chest just won't go away, and suddenly you feel like you're having trouble catching your breath, it's time to call 9-1-1.
Those symptoms could indicate either a heart attack or impending cardiac arrest. And waiting to see if the symptoms subside could cost you your life.
"The unfortunate fact is that we have become very good at treating heart disease once you have reached medical care. But, the majority of people who die, die before they reach medical care," said Dr. Joon Sup Lee, clinical director of the Cardiovascular Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
In fact, about 330,000 Americans die each year from heart problems and heart disease before they get to the hospital, according to the American Heart Association.
In cardiac arrest, the heart actually stops beating, usually after a period of fast or irregular heartbeats. In a heart attack, blood flow is blocked to part of the heart, damaging heart muscle, but the heart usually continues to beat.
Cardiac arrest is usually caused by existing heart disease or a heart attack, but can also be caused by electrocution, drowning, respiratory failure and choking. Sometimes, no known cause for cardiac arrest is found, according to the heart association.
Symptoms that precede both conditions are similar and include:
- Chest pain or pressure or a feeling of tightness in the chest.
- Shortness of breath.
- Extreme fatigue.
- Pain that radiates down the left arm.
- Jaw pain or neck pain.
- Upper abdominal pain or a feeling of indigestion.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Breaking out in a sweat.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness, possibly fainting.
"If any of these symptoms are new to you, you should go get it checked out," advised Dr. Nieca Goldberg, director of the New York University Langone Medical Center's Women's Heart Program in New York City. She said that many people, especially women, wait to get medical help, because they don't want to look silly or waste doctors' time.
"Don't worry about what others will think -- just go," she said.
Lee agreed. "If you're having symptoms, and they persist for more than a few minutes, seek medical care. If you wait, you may never make it to the hospital," he said, adding, "If you look at people who died suddenly, they often had symptoms but ignored them."
A recent study in the journal Circulation looked at the events leading up 406 cardiac arrests and found that many of these people had symptoms prior to the cardiac arrest, sometimes for as long as two hours beforehand.
Two-thirds of these cardiac arrests were witnessed by someone. And 25 percent of those people whose cardiac arrest was witnessed by someone else experienced chest pain, and 17 percent had breathlessness.
The survival rate for people in the study who received CPR was around 23 percent, compared to just 4 percent for those who didn't receive CPR. People who went into cardiac arrest in a public place were more likely to get CPR than people whose hearts stopped at home.
"What this study suggests is that most people do have a warning, many of them had more than one hour, which is more than enough time for EMS to get there. Most people who die suddenly, die of an irregular rhythm," said Lee, and that's the type of problem that defibrillators were designed to correct.
The bottom line, said Lee, is don't wait. "There's a fear that you'll feel stupid if you go to the hospital, and you're OK. But, if you want to be 100 percent sure, you're risking your life."
To learn more about cardiac arrest, visit the American Heart Association.