Affairs of the heart: A regular exercise regime helps avoid the dreaded heart attack. *MCT photo
Affairs of the heart: A regular exercise regime helps avoid the dreaded heart attack. *MCT photo
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What an amazing organ the heart is. In an average lifetime it will beat more than three billion times.

The heart is about the size of a fist and lies in the centre of the chest between the lungs.

It pumps blood throughout the body. The ribs, breastbone and spine protect it from injury.

The heart is separated into right and left halves. Blood that contains little or no oxygen enters the right side of the heart and is pumped to the lungs.

The blood picks up oxygen in the lungs when you breathe. The oxygen-rich blood then goes to the left side of the heart and is pumped to all parts of the body.

The heart’s electrical system sends out signals that tell the heart to pump blood, these signals travel through the upper chambers of the heart called the atria, to the lower chambers, called the ventricles.

When a heart is healthy, electrical signals cause the ventricles to squeeze together, or contract.

These contractions, force blood out of the heart; the blood then circulates throughout the body.

When the ventricles relax between contractions, blood flows back to the heart.

The pause that you notice between heartbeats when taking a person’s pulse are the pause between contractions.

If the heart is damaged, the electrical system can become disrupted.

This can lead to abnormal heart rhythm that can stop the proper circulation of blood through the body.

When damage to the heart causes it to stop working properly, a person experiences a heart attack or other damage to the heart muscle. Heart attacks can cause the heart to beat in an irregular way. This can prevent blood from circulating effectively.

When the heart does not beat properly, normal breathing can become disrupted or stop altogether.

A heart attack can also cause the heart to stop beating entirely.  This condition is called cardiac arrest.

Cardiac arrest

The most common abnormal rhythm the heart goes into during sudden cardiac arrest is ventricular fibrillation or V-Fib.

During V-Fib, the heart’s electrical system stops making sense. This causes fibrillation or quivering of the ventricles with the result that the heart cannot send enough blood through the body and there are no signs of life.

Another abnormal rhythm found during cardiac arrest is ventricular tachycardia or V-tach.

With V-tach, the electrical system tells the ventricles to contract too quickly. When this happens, the heart cannot pump blood properly. As with V-fib, during V-tach the person will show no signs of life.

In many cases, V-fib and V-tach rhythms can be corrected by an electric shock delivered by an automated external defibrillator (AED).

This shock disrupts the abnormal electrical activity of V-fib and V-tach long enough to allow the heart to develop an effective rhythm on its own.

Signs of a heart attack can include any of the following signals:

  • Persistent chest discomfort lasting more than 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Persistent chest discomfort that goes away and comes back.
  • Discomfort, pain or pressure in either arm, back or stomach.
  • Discomfort pain or pressure that spreads to the shoulder, arm, neck or jaw.
  • Dizziness, light-headedness or loss of consciousness.
  • Trouble breathing including gasping, shortness of breath, or faster than normal breathing.
  • Nausea.
  • Pale or ashy looking skin.
  • Sweating – face may be moist or person may be sweating profusely.

Care for a heart attack

  • Recognize the signals.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number immediately for help.
  • Have the person rest in a comfortable position.
  • Obtain additional information abut the person’s condition.
  • Assist with medication if prescribed
  • Monitor the person’s condition.
  • Be prepared to give CPR and if available use AED.