Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC
As I write this, February is upon us. It is designated as “Heart Month,” but I have never been sure whether the American Heart Association or candy vendors for Valentine’s Day are the primary drivers of that promotion. This is a good time to think for a few minutes about how to recognize when a heart might be in trouble.
A heart is a simply muscular pump that is controlled by the nervous and endocrine systems. The ancients believed that the heart was the seat of the soul, endowed with courage, generosity, love, etc., but research has told us much about this organ that is far more mundane. It is simply designed to pump blood to the body and to itself. Modern medicine has learned to speed it up, slow it down, pace it, make it beat harder, make it beat softer, replace its valves, or even replace the heart entirely. Not so romantic, is it?
As a result of various processes, including age, inflammation, lifestyle, and other factors, the arteries that feed the heart itself may become occluded. If this happens, the heart muscle goes without oxygen. A heart that is short of oxygen in most cases gives us chest pain which we call angina. If it progresses so that heart muscle cells are injured or actually die, we call this a heart attack. These are usually unpleasant events with consequences that may be even more unpleasant. It is important for us to recognize the signs and take appropriate action immediately.
The classic symptom is pain in the center of the chest. When someone experiences this, look for them to squeeze their fist to demonstrate how it feels. The chest discomfort will typically last for more than a few minutes, but it may be intermittent. It may be related to activity, worsening with motion.
This pain may also manifest itself in other areas. It may be felt in either or both arms, the jaw, the back, the neck, or down in the stomach. If the pain or discomfort is felt in one of these areas in combination with the things we will discuss below, go ahead and assume the worst and take action.
Look for shortness of breath. This may be related to cardiac function, but it may also be a result of anxiety that accompanies this experience.
Other signs and symptoms will include nausea, sweating, and dizziness, all of which may be related to the neurological response to a heart attack or the shift in blood flow associated with it. Interestingly, women are more likely to have these signs than men, especially the jaw pain. Sometimes jaw pain is the only discomfort a woman experiences with a heart attack.
If you see someone in this kind of distress, help them to a seated position (this limits the amount of work the heart has to do for the moment) and keep them comfortable. Loosen the collar to help them breathe. Call 911 to your location, and stay with the victim to reassure them. Talk with them to keep an ongoing assessment of how they are doing. Report all of this to the emergency personnel when they arrive. If you are alone when any of this happens to you, call 911 first, then your bridge partner or golf buddy. Time is critical.
And that is the heart of the matter. Stay healthy, stay alert, and be vigilant for yourself and others. And happy Valentine’s Day.