Warning Signs of A Heart Attack or Stroke for Walkers

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Walking is a great way to reduce your health risks, but it doesn't eliminate them. It's still possible that you may suffer a heart attack or stroke while you are walking. You need to know the warning signs and seek help immediately. Even if you think this will never happen to you, it may happen to your walking partner and you can help save her life. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, so don't think this is a problem only for men.

Stop walking and seek immediate care if you have any of these symptoms of heart attack or stroke:

  • Tightness, pressure, or squeezing in your chest, possibly extending into your left arm or neck.
  • Palpitations
  • Chest pain or pain in your arms or jaw, often on the left side
  • Wheezing, coughing, or other difficulty in breathing.
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Dizziness, faintness or feeling sick to your stomach
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Cramps, severe pain or muscle aches
  • Severe, prolonged fatigue or exhaustion after exercise.
  • Nausea.
  • Stroke symptoms: FAST. Face drooping (uneven smile), Arm weakness or numbness, Speech difficult or slurred. Time to call 911.
  • More: Is it a Stroke, Heart Attack or Cardiac Arrest?

Seconds count when you are having a heart attack or stroke

  • Immediately call 911 or the other emergency number for your area to bring an ambulance with a defibrillator. Swiftly getting a unit to you is the single most important factor in surviving the heart attack. Seconds count.
  • AED (automatic external defibrillator): These are simple portable defibrillators that anyone may use. They have easy instructions on the unit, both in graphics and text. You will see them in public places such as shopping malls, large stores, fast food restaurants, public buildings and office buildings in addition to the expected places such as medical clinics and hospitals. First responders such as EMTs, police and fire units will also have them. If your distress happens in or near any of these areas, have someone ask for the AED. Red Cross CPR classes cover how to use them.
  • Does it happen? Yes, in a single year I was at two walking events where friends had heart attacks. These shocking events are a reminder to all of us to be trained in CPR and to know where the nearest phone is to call 911 or the emergency number for the country or area you are in.
  • Summon help from those around you. Command one of the onlookers to call 911 and to get the AED. It's better to risk embarrassment than to die.

Normal signs of exertion

Nobody wants to cry wolf, but you also don't want to die because you ignored important symptoms. Here is what normal physical exertion feels like.

  • Increased heart rate, you may feel or hear your heart beat. It should be a steady rhythm. Learn to take your pulse and know what your target heart rate is so you can be assured it is due to exertion. You may want to use a heart rate app on your cell phone to automate this process and that can also detect unusual pulse patterns.
  • Increased breathing rate, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation, especially soon after slowing down or stopping.
  • Mild to moderate sweating.
  • Muscle aches and tenderness that might last a day or two as you get started.

Stroke Warning Signs: American Heart Association, accessed 7/3/2014.
Heart Attack Warning Signs: American Heart Association. Accessed 7/3/2014

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