‘Tis the season to be merry, but that doesn’t give us a “holiday” from paying attention to what our bodies are telling us. According to a study in Circulation, there’s a distinct increase in the number of deadly heart attacks during the winter holiday season with even greater spikes seen around Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Sun Prairie resident Scott Suchomel knows all to well about the dangers of heart attack. During the week of Thanksgiving this year, while hunting with friends, he started to notice some pressure in his chest.
“It felt like a solid pressure in my chest but I didn’t have any of the other feelings as far as a classic heart attack,” the 45 year-old says. “One thing I did notice was that I was very thirsty. I also got a little sweaty on my arms but it was the pressure that got so tight in my chest that eventually led me to the ER.”
Suchomel was fortunate to be with his brother who convinced him to get to the St. Mary’s Sun Prairie Emergency Center and fast.
“They did a great job basically from when I got there,” he says. “They looked at me and within three minutes they diagnosed me as having a heart attack and prepped me to travel by ambulance to St. Mary’s. Fourteen minutes later, I was at the hospital and 10-11 minutes later they had the clot out and the stent installed.”
Suchomel’s heart attack may have come on the early side of the holiday season, but he’s alive doctors say, because he made a very important decision to seek medical attention at the first signs of heart attack.
“It really can be a difference of life and death,” says Dr. Kyle Martin, Medical Director of the St. Mary’s Emergency Department. “If you catch someone early on in a heart attack, you give the cardiologist a chance to open up their artery and get blood flowing again. The longer you wait, the more time passes, and heart is starved of oxygen. If you wait too long that heart tissue dies and scars over and that part of the heart can’t squeeze blood anymore and you have permanent damage.”
Why the Increase in Heart Attack Deaths in the Winter?
There’s no one reason for the spike in holiday heart attacks, but doctors say it’s likely a combination of factors: cold weather, shoveling and not paying attention to the warning signs.
Cold weather can affect the body in many ways. It adds extra stress and constricts blood vessels, making the space for blood flow smaller. Often, people who encounter problems have underlying, sometimes undiagnosed, heart disease. When combined with smaller arteries and extra exertion from shoveling, plaque that’s attached to artery walls can detach and cause a heart attack.
“Shoveling may not seem that taxing on the body, but it really is,” says Denise Mitton, RN and Level One Heart Attack Program Coordinator at St. Mary’s Hospital. “Last year we had a phenomenal amount of people that came in after shoveling or who had collapsed while shoveling and the family found them in the snow.”
So why does the problem show up now? People may not have signs and symptoms in the weeks leading up to the holidays since much of our time is spent inside resting and watching TV, rather than exercising. Shoveling snow puts a great deal of stress on the body and once the heart starts pumping more, the restricted blood flood can really cause a problem.
“It’s really like a ticking time bomb,” says Dr. Martin. “That’s why it’s so important to watch for those signs and symptoms of heart attack when you’re shoveling. Really any chest pressure, heaviness, tightness or discomfort is a sign you need to seek medical attention. Shortness of breath caused by exertion is also a warning sign.”
Don’t Take a Holiday from Your Health
Another big problem this time of year is people start ignoring what their bodies are telling them. You may be out shopping, at a holiday party or gathering with family to open gifts. If chest pressure, tightness or shortness of breath come on, would you choose to leave the gathering and go to the hospital or would you wait to see if the symptoms subside? All too often, people choose to wait which can have deadly consequences.
“Often the argument is people don’t want to be an imposition on their families,” says Dr. Martin. “When I see them in the ER and I know they’re sick, I have to plead with them to stay when they’d rather be at home with their loved ones. I always say, ‘I’m sure your family and friends would rather have you spend time here than not have you around for subsequent holidays.’”
So When Should You Seek Medical Attention?
The signs and symptoms of a heart attack aren’t always as depicted on TV or in the movies. You may not clutch your chest or feel like an elephant is sitting on you.
“If someone is having chest pain and they notice they’ve exerted themselves, they should sit down. If the pain goes away, that’s a warning,” Mitton says. “Don’t put this off for three to four months - get in touch with your family physician.”
If your chest pain doesn’t go away, you have shortness of breath, feel pain going down your arm or are sweaty, you need to call 9-1-1 and get to the hospital right away! This is not time to visit an urgent care; get to an emergency room.
“Ninety minutes is about the time we have to get an artery open without causing permanent damage,” says Mitton. “Of course, we’d like to do it in less time and can if you get to the hospital quickly.”
The holidays are a time to enjoy friends and family, reminisce and look to the future. But unfortunately, because some of us feel a trip to the ER would be an inconvenience, there are sad stories at this time of year as well.
“We can all remember that holiday story of a family’s loss and how it affects them for the rest of their lives,” Mitton says. “It’s one holiday, so what. If you need to go to the ER, go. You may be able to share an additional thirty Christmases by getting checked out rather than ignoring what your body is telling you.”
Tips for Travelers
Many families will choose to travel this holiday season, and if you have heart disease or underlying medical conditions, you should think about checking with your insurance company to know what they will cover out of your area or network and bring along the following documents:
- Your latest EKG
- The location of any stents you may have
- Your doctor’s phone number
Where you’re traveling, you may not have all the resources of your local community and having this extra documentation could give those doctors vital information they need to adequately diagnose and treat you.
Know the Signs and Symptoms of Heart Attack
Here’s a quick reference to the signs and symptoms of heart attack. If you experience these, get checked out immediately:
· Chest pain – with or without exertion
· Chest discomfort, tightness, shortness of breath
· Pain that travels to your arm
For women in particular watch out for:
- Shortness of breath
- Extreme sudden feeling of fatigue like the flu.
Dealing with Winter Woes
Shoveling is a big cause of heart attack during the holidays and winter season as a whole, but it’s not the only thing to watch out for. Here are some tips to staying safe this winter:
- Take small shovelfuls – too much can lead to severe back problems
- Ice is not nice – make sure you have on shoes with good traction and walk carefully. Dr. Martin says it may seem silly, but walking like a penguin with small steps, your knees slightly bent, feet pointed slightly out and arms out is a way to minimize your risk of falling.
- Sled safely – that means wearing a helmet, particularly for kids, and riding feet first.
- Just say “no” to hands in a snow blower – your equipment may clog, but even with the snow blower off there’s a lot of potential energy in the auger. If you dislodge the ice and snow with your hands, amputation can occur.
- Frostbite is a real issue – make sure your exposed skin is covered. Particularly watch those under the influence as they often do not realize how cold it really is.