February 28, 2024/Heart Health

Can You Stop a Heart Attack Once It Starts?

There’s no way to stop it once a heart attack is happening, but the most important thing you can do is to call for help

Person having a heart attack in background, close up of hand calling 911 on cell phone in foreground

Have you ever heard that in-the-moment measures like so-called “cough CPR” can stop a heart attack as it’s happening?

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We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but that’s a myth — and so is any other claim that you can nip a heart attack in the bud after it’s begun.

The truth is that a heart attack is sort of like an ongoing train: There’s just no way to stop it in its tracks. But there are critical steps that you can take to increase your likelihood of survival and recovery.

Cardiologist Andrew Higgins, MD, explains why you can’t stop a heart attack and what you can do to raise your chances of the best possible outcome.

Why you can’t stop a heart attack once it happens

There’s a common saying in medicine: “Time is muscle.” Basically, it means that when you’re having a heart attack, there’s a real need for speed. But why?

A heart attack is caused by a lack of blood flow to your heart, which is usually related to a blockage in one or more arteries. During a heart attack, that lack of blood flow immediately begins to damage your heart muscle.

“Once a heart attack begins, heart muscle starts to die due to lack of oxygen in the heart muscle cells themselves,” Dr. Higgins explains. “Stopping it requires medical intervention to restore blood flow quickly.”

If blood flow isn’t restored quickly, a heart attack can cause permanent heart damage or death.

“Damage, once it has occurred, may be difficult or impossible to reverse,” he continues. “I cannot emphasize enough the need for immediate treatment. Acting quickly may minimize the damage and even save your life.”

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What to do if you think you’re having a heart attack

If you suspect that you’re having a heart attack, the best and most important action you can take is to seek medical attention.

“Time is critical,” Dr. Higgins stresses, “because the sooner you get treatment, the better the chance of survival and less damage to the heart.”

Here’s what to do if you think you’re having a heart attack:

  • Call 911. “Contact emergency services immediately,” Dr. Higgins states. If you live in North America, dial 911. If you live elsewhere or are traveling abroad, make sure you know the right emergency services number to call.
  • Don’t drive to the hospital. Even if you’re feeling OK or are with someone who could drive you to the emergency room, it’s important to call for an ambulance instead. Emergency personnel can begin treatment immediately, especially if you have additional complications during the ride.
  • Take chest pain medication, if it’s safe for you. If you have a prescription for a medication like nitroglycerin, take it while you wait for an ambulance to arrive. If not (and if you’re sure you don’t have an aspirin allergy) you can take 325 milligrams of aspirin, which helps prevent blood from clotting. When you’re having a heart attack, it can help reduce heart damage.

What to do if you think someone you’re with is having a heart attack

If you’re with someone who is having a heart attack, the best thing you can do is to stay by their side and help them remain calm while you wait for emergency services to arrive. Don’t drive them to the hospital.

“The recommendations don’t change,” Dr. Higgins says. “Activation of emergency services is still the crucial first step. But if they become unresponsive, you may need to perform CPR.”

Knowing how to perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) is an important skill that can help save a life in case of an emergency.

What if I’m not sure if I’m having a heart attack?

Remember the phrase: “Time is muscle.” When you’re having a heart attack, it’s important to act — even if you’re not 100% sure that’s what’s happening to you.

A study of 200 people who’d had heart attacks found that 69% of them delayed seeking treatment, usually because they hoped the symptoms they were feeling would go away on their own. But putting off the call for help can be life-threatening.

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“When you suspect a heart attack, don’t delay in calling for help in hopes of the symptoms resolving on their own,” Dr. Higgins urges. “Such delays increase the risk of severe heart damage or death.”

The same study found that other reasons for delaying treatment included “attributing the symptoms to other problems other than heart problems” and “disregarding the symptoms.” While it’s understandable that you might feel nervous about calling 911 if you’re not sure you’re actually having a heart attack, it’s always better safe than sorry.

“Don’t let it deter you from seeking help,” Dr. Higgins emphasizes. “The consequences of ignoring heart attack symptoms are far more serious than any potential embarrassment at being wrong. It’s better to be safe and get checked than to risk a life-threatening situation.”

Of course, no one plans or prepares to have a heart attack. But learning about the early signs of a heart attack, as well as what a heart attack feels like, will arm you with important knowledge that may save your life if an emergency hits.

Tips to help prevent a heart attack

There are some risk factors for heart attack that you don’t have control over, like your age, sex assigned at birth and family health history. But there are also plenty of factors that you can influence yourself.

“Lifestyle changes are crucial for heart attack prevention,” Dr. Higgins says. Here are some of the things you can do to help lower your risk of heart disease.

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Nutrition and heart health go hand in hand. A balanced diet can help reduce your cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides and blood pressure.
  • Move more. Physical activity is good for your heart — and for the rest of your body! Aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.
  • Manage your stress levels. Stress and heart disease are closely related.
  • Limit (or avoid) alcohol. Alcohol use is a risk factor for a variety of health concerns, including heart disease. Talk to a healthcare provider for help with alcohol use disorder.
  • Don’t use tobacco products. One of the best ways to protect your heart is to steer clear of smoking, vaping, dipping and other forms of tobacco use. As with alcohol, talk to a healthcare provider for help quitting the habit.

You don’t have to be perfect — but even small lifestyle changes can go a long way for your heart health, Dr. Higgins encourages. “These measures reduce risk factors, enhance overall heart health and underscore the importance of proactive care and lifestyle management.”

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