It’s World Heart Day – would you know the signs of a heart attack?

29 September 2023

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World Heart Day falls on Friday 29 September this year, reminding everyone around the world to take care of their hearts. This year focuses on ‘knowing our hearts first’. It also coincides with NHS North London Cardiac Operational Delivery Network’s campaign to raise awareness of heart attack symptoms to help save lives. Recognising the possible signs of a heart attack and anything that may be unusual for you, is essential in being able to get help quickly.

A recent survey published by NHS England revealed a lack of confidence in recognising the symptoms of a heart attack, with almost half (47%) of people surveyed in London saying they were not confident that they could recognise the signs.

Furthermore almost 1 in 4 (39%) Londoners claimed they would not call 999 if they or a loved one were displaying chest pain – the most common symptom of a heart attack. 

Heart attack symptoms and signs can vary from person to person, but can include squeezing across the chest and a feeling of unease. Symptoms don’t always feel severe and some people may have other symptoms such as shortness of breath, feeling or being sick and back or jaw pain without any chest pain. Anyone experiencing heart attack symptoms should call 999.

People’s chances of surviving a heart attack are far higher if they seek care earlier – overall around 7 in 10 people survive a heart attack, which increases to more than 9 in 10 for those who reach hospital early to receive treatment.

Asif Haque is an English teacher, from South Woodford. He survived a heart attack in his mid-forties and says: “It is so important to get medical help rather than dismiss what’s happening. It might not feel very serious, but it’s always best to make sure. I thought I had bad food poisoning - a pain at the back of my neck right down to my stomach. It continued for another three days before I thought to do anything about it. My family are medics and when I saw the ECG, I knew straight away how major this was. Had I sought help sooner, 30% of my heart muscle could have been saved.” 

The NHS England survey also shows that there is real confusion between heart attack and cardiac arrest. Over two thirds (70%)* of respondents in London said they are unaware of the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest, with almost half (48%) wrongly believing a cardiac arrest is another name for a heart attack.

A heart attack occurs when the supply of blood to the heart becomes blocked, which can starve it of oxygen, potentially causing serious muscle damage, but the person will be conscious and breathing. 

A cardiac arrest is different – it usually occurs suddenly and without warning with the person quickly losing consciousness. Their heart stops, they will have no pulse and sadly people experiencing a cardiac arrest will usually die within minutes if they do not receive treatment. A heart attack can lead to a cardiac arrest.

Dr Emmanuel Ako is a Consultant Cardiologist at Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospitals Specialist Care. He urges Londoners to be aware of the signs and to act quickly: “The best advice I can give to anyone who thinks they or someone they’re with might be having a heart attack, is to call 999 immediately. Please don’t risk waiting to see if it gets better. You’re not wasting anyone’s time, and you risk further possible damage to your heart, the longer you leave it. The sooner you get medical help, the better the chances of recovery.”

While the most common symptom is chest pain, symptoms can vary from person to person. Other symptoms of a heart attack can include:  

  • A feeling of pain, pressure, heaviness, tightness or squeezing across your chest 
  • pain in other parts of the body – it can feel as if the pain is spreading from your chest to your arms (usually the left arm, but it can affect both arms), jaw, neck, back and tummy
  • feeling lightheaded or dizzy 
  • sweating 
  • shortness of breath 
  • feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting) 
  • an overwhelming feeling of anxiety (similar to a panic attack) 
  • coughing or wheezing 

The latest NHS figures show that there were more than 84,000 hospital heart attack admissions in England during 2021/22, up by more than 7,000 compared to the previous year when fewer people came forward for care during the pandemic. 

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