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5 things you need to know after a heart attack

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Every 40 seconds in the United States, someone has a heart attack. In a year, that adds up to 735,000 people, about 15 percent of whom will die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But there are ways to maximize your chances of survival, says Jay Wright, DO, cardiology section chief and cardiologist on the medical staff at Methodist Dallas Medical Center. The most important starts way before recovery: If the signs point to a heart attack, get to the hospital as quickly as possible.

“Nowadays, treatment is very sophisticated,” he says. “Get into the heart cath lab ASAP, identify where the blood clot is, open the blocked coronary artery with a balloon, and place a stent (to keep the artery open). The quicker we do that, that better off you are and the greater your chances of a successful recovery.”

And while the risk of having a second heart attack is strong, here are five guidelines to make sure you’re doing all that you can to keep from going through this trauma again.

1. Know the symptoms

They’re vast and can include nausea, unexplained sweating, and pain on either side of the chest — though Dr. Wright says 10 to 15 percent of people having a heart attack don’t have chest discomfort. They may, though, have more generalized bodily discomfort as well as tightness, pressure, heaviness, and pain radiating from the jaw to the shoulders to the arms. Dr. Wright has even had patients whose painful wrists turned out to be symptoms of a heart attack.

All too often, the signs are ignored or written off as something else: nausea as indigestion; a sore arm as a pulled muscle. Maybe someone does physical labor all day so assumes this newest discomfort is all part of the job. Maybe people just don’t want to think about the possibilities.

“So they put it off until it doesn’t go away or they start to get short of breath and start to feel worse,” Dr. Wright says. “By the time they get to the hospital, it’s too late to save any of the heart muscle.”

2. Seek help immediately

For best results, Dr. Wright says, “we need to get the artery opened within an hour. Every minute beyond that causes irreversible damage to the muscle of the heart. The quicker we can get it open, the better. People who do well are those who get in within 10 to 15 minutes of the pain.”

3. Focus on your recovery

What your doctor prescribes is specific to you. So listen — everyone is different, everyone’s prescription for post-trauma care is different.

“Some people can have large heart attacks, and we tell them to take it easy,” Dr. Wright says. “Some will get in quickly, we’ll have the artery opened up, and they’ll go back to work next week. It’s highly, highly variable.”

4. Do what’s in your power to do

 You can’t control your family history, but you can control what you eat, how often you exercise, and whether you smoke or not.

“Most patients are compliant with treatment,” Dr. Wright says, “but most are not compliant with diet.”

Which leads to the next guideline:

5. Cut way back on sugar

He’s not just talking about a teaspoon in your coffee mug or your glass of iced tea. Sugar is an unsuspected ingredient in a huge number of processed foods, and eating too much of it is way too easy — and has detrimental effects on health.

“Sugar, or any carb that is converted to sugar, stimulates insulin,” he says. “Sugar is used for energy, forcing fat into the cells for storage. Fat builds up in your cells, some of which may end up in the coronary arteries, thus causing blockage.”

Of course, the best way to survive a heart attack is to not have one in the first place. So whether or not you think you’re at high risk, make sure you have an annual checkup.

“We do all we can with diet, exercise, and treating risk factors,” Dr. Wright says. “That’s how you try to avoid it.”


Take our Heart Health Risk Assessment to see how your heart might be doing and if it’s time to see a doctor.