February is National Heart Health Month

Monday, February 5, 2018

While lovers exchange notes and gifts with their sweethearts on this upcoming Valentine’s Day, and the common heart-shaped gift boxes are filled with milk chocolate, doctors, dietitians and other health professionals urge people to turn their attention to their actual beating heart.

Nearly 25 percent of all deaths in the United States are directly related to heart disease or myocardial infarction, commonly referred to as heart attack.

“When you are feeling chest pain, and it is different than something you have felt before, you need to call 911. It is absolutely better to be safe than sorry,” said Tim Raleigh, D.O., emergency department physician at Fitzgibbon Hospital. “What they tell us in medical school, and it is probably true, is that the science of the heart attack is denial. Everyone wants to excuse it and say it is heart burn, or ‘maybe I have bronchitis or the flu.’”

While most heart attacks are thought to involve pain in the chest, there are actually many other symptoms that can be indicators that a heart attack is occurring or may occur soon. Some of these symptoms are very different for women, notes Raleigh.

“Heart attack for women is a little more difficult to see right off, because it can present as a number of symptoms. She may have ear pain or jaw pain. She may have had pain in her middle or upper back. It doesn’t always present with chest pain, and so she may have had or be having a heart attack and not necessarily connect the dots,” said Raleigh.

What we eat also can affect our heart. With the joy of the holidays comes a hidden factor that few people realize can have a devastating effect. Increased consumption of alcohol around the holidays can lead to an elevated blood pressure, which is an important risk factor for heart attack or stroke. But salt intake also frequently increases during the holidays or when dining in restaurants, where actual cooking methods and ingredients may not be clear to diners.

“People who have a history of disease or heart attack may have been instructed by their physician to lower their salt intake. Salt, or sodium, causes your body to retain too much fluid. And when your body has too much fluid, your heart is not able to pump that much fluid through the body. The heart then becomes an ‘ineffective’ pump,” said Raleigh, noting that this causes the heart to beat harder and can trigger a heart attack. “We see this a lot after the holidays when people eat food that is high in salt, for example, ham. People who have been told by their doctor or cardiologist to watch their salt intake really need to take it seriously.”

Reducing salt means staying away from cured and processed meats, cheeses and eliminating sodium-rich canned food items, and reducing or eliminating the addition of table salt when eating. Substituting herbs or salt-free seasoning blends is a good alternative.

When someone comes to the emergency department at Fitzgibbon Hospital with a possible heart attack, they can expect that the physicians and nurses will move quickly to utilize a number of different tools to correctly diagnose the patient’s condition.

“When someone presents with a possible heart attack, we will first assess their symptoms and their state of well-being. Do they have shortness of breath, swelling of the feet, confusion?” said Raleigh. “We will give them aspirin, if they can tolerate that. We will conduct an electrocardiogram, start an IV, draw blood and send it to the lab and do a chest X-ray, along with any other ancillary tests that may be needed to correctly diagnose them.”

One of the markers — or indicators — that physicians use to identify a heart attack is the presence of troponin in the blood, a protein that is frequently present following a heart attack.

The protein is released into the blood when damage occurs to heart muscle cells.

“Once we have verified that a heart attack has occurred, we will work to stabilize the patient and transfer them to a facility that has the capacity to perform the necessary procedures on the heart, including heart catheterization or other cardiac diagnostics,” said Raleigh.

The doctor offered a bit of sound advice for anyone who may be unsure about whether they should go to the emergency room for cardiac or other symptoms that concern them.

“Don’t assume it is not a heart attack. I would rather you get to the hospital and find out that it wasn’t a heart attack than assume it isn’t a heart attack and suffer a cardiac event at home. Then it may be too late to do something about it,” said Raleigh.

The emergency room doctor reminds everyone that if you feel tightness or pain in your chest or arms that may or may not spread to your neck, jaw or back, it is important that you take the potential for heart attack very seriously.

The emergency department at Fitzgibbon Hospital is open 24 hours per day, seven days per week, with physicians on-site who are trained to recognize, diagnose and stabilize individuals who are encountering a heart attack.

Anyone experiencing what they consider a life-threatening emergency is encouraged to call 911.