Cardiac Compromise

Cardiac Compromise

Acute Coronary Syndrome

Cardiac Compromise

            Blanket term for any heart problem.

Causes of Cardiac Compromise

  • Coronary Artery Disease (Atherosclerosis, arteriosclerosis)
  • Aneurysm
  • Dysrythmia (bradycardia, tachycardia, V-Fib, V-Tach, Pulseless Electrical Activity (PEA), asystole
  • Pulmonary Edema
  • Congestive Heart Failure
  • Cardiac Rupture
  • Angina Pectoris
  • Acute Myocardial Infarction

Signs and Symptoms

  • Chest pain (crushing, dull, heavy or squeezing)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Palpitations
  • Sudden onset of sweating and nausea or vomiting
  • Anxiety (feeling of impending doom, irritability)
  • Abnormal pulse
  • Abnormal blood pressure
  • Hypotensive or hypertensive
  • Loss of consciousness



Cardiac compromise can manifest itself in many different ways, and there are numerous problems that the heart can experience.  As an EMT it is not necessarily vital that you diagnose the type of cardiac compromise that a patient may be experiencing, but rather be able to recognize that the patient is suffering from a cardiac compromise of some type.  Leave the diagnosing up to the doctors at the hospitals.  In the field it is vital to recognize the various signs and symptoms of a cardiac compromise, and how you will treat it in an out of hospital setting. 

The main symptom of a heart problem is chest pain.  It is important that you rule out chest pain due to trauma, before treating the patient for a cardiac related chest pain.  Once it is determined that the chest pain is cardiac related then you can proceed to treat for cardiac compromise.  You should have the patient describe the pain he is experiencing, this is important because some people’s perception of pain may be different than others.  They may describe it more as a discomfort, or a feeling of pressure.  Typical feelings of pain people will experience while in cardiac compromise are crushing pains, dull, heavy or squeezing.  Pain will commonly radiate along the arms, down to the upper abdomen, or up to the jaw so it is also important to ask the patient if he feels the pain anywhere else or travels anywhere else.

Other typical signs and symptoms of cardiac compromise include dyspnea.  If the patient does not mention that he is having difficulty breathing, ask if he is.  Sometimes the chest pains will focus their attention only on the chest pain and forget to mention any difficulty breathing.  Cardiac patients will often feel anxious, have feelings of impending doom or it can display itself as anxiety in the form of irritability or a short temper.  They can also experience nausea and pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen, mimicking heartburn.

An obvious symptom you will notice in a cardiac patient is a sudden onset of sweating and an abnormal pulse or blood pressure.  The patients pulse may be bradycardic or tachycardic and will frequently be irregular, and the patient may feel palpitations.  Some patients will be hypotensive, and others will be hypertensive.

Cardiac patients often times will deny that they are having heart problems, or they do not want to acknowledge that they could be having heart problems.  Also cardiac compromise can present itself in many different ways so it is imperative that you interview the patient thoroughly making sure to find any signs and symptoms they may be presenting.  Make sure that you have the patient explain their symptoms to you in their own words rather than asking leading questions like: “is your chest pain a crushing pain?”  But rather ask them open ended questions like: “describe the sensation you are having”.  If the patient is having a difficult time explaining the sensations they are having then give them examples like dull, sharp, crushing, squeezing, etc.. 

Because of the many possibilities and potentially severe complications that can arise from heart problems, it is especially important to have a high index of suspicion and treat patients that exhibit any of these signs and symptoms for cardiac compromise.  Treatments that you are able to give will not hurt them and may help them.

Treatment Guidelines

  1. Place the patient in a position of comfort.
  2. Apply high concentration oxygen via a nonrebreather mask.  If the patient develops an altered mental status or loses consciousness you will need to be prepared to maintain a patent airway and provide ventilations.
  3. Immediately transport under these guidelines:

·         Patient has no history of cardiac problems.

·         Patient has a history of cardiac problems, but does not have nitroglycerin.

·         Systolic blood pressure is below 90-100.

  1. Determine what hospital to transport the patient to, depending on hospital capabilities in your area will determine where to take the patient.
  2. Depending on local protocols, give or help the patient take nitroglycerin, only if all of the following conditions are met (and local protocols or medical direction allows):

·         Patient complains of chest pain.

·         Patient has a history of cardiac problems.

·         Patient’s physician has prescribed nitroglycerin (NTG).

·         Patient has the nitroglycerin, or nitroglycerin is carried in the ambulance.

·         Patient has a pulse greater than 50 and below 100 bpm (follows local protocols).

·         Systolic blood pressure meets your protocol criteria (usually greater than 90-100 systolic).

·         Patient has not taken Viagra or a similar E.D. drug within the past 72 hours.

·         Medical direction authorizes administration of nitroglycerin.

**Make sure to document the patient’s vital signs before the first dose of nitroglycerin is administered and after each dose.  Be sure to find out how many does the patient took prior to your arrival.  Ask the patient the effects of the medication on the pain or discomfort and record the patient’s response.  This information is vital to the hospital since response or lack of response are important clues to the cause of the patient’s difficulty.**

6.      After giving one dose of nitroglycerin, give a repeat dose in 5 minutes if all of the following conditions are met (and local protocols or medical direction allows):

·         Patient experiences no relief or only partial relief.

·         Systolic blood pressure remains greater than 90-100 systolic.

·         Medical direction authorizes another dose.

  1. If your EMS system and local protocols allow it, give or help the patient take aspirin if all of the following conditions are met:

·         Patient complains of chest pain.

·         Patient is not allergic to aspirin.

·         Patient has no history of asthma.

·         Patient is not already taking medications to prevent clotting.

·         Patient has no other contraindications to aspirin.

·         Patient is able to swallow without endangering the airway.

·         Medical direction authorizes administration of the medication.

        Follow your local protocols concerning dosages of nitroglycerin and aspirin.  A maximum of three doses of nitroglycerin is generally accepted, as long as the systolic blood pressure remains above 90-100, and local protocols or medical direction allows it.  Nitroglycerin is a vasodilator so after administration the patient’s blood pressure will drop which decreases the workload of the heart.  Patient may also experience a headache, and a change in pulse rate.  This is why it is imperative to know how many doses the patient took prior to your arrival, monitor the patient’s vital signs before and after administration.  Also it is vital that you ask the patient if he has taken any medications for erectile dysfunction.  E.D. drugs work like nitroglycerin, as a vasodilator, so if they have taken any E.D. medications their blood pressure will already be lowered, and any administration of nitroglycerin following any dosage of an E.D. medication will dangerously lower the blood pressure.  Be aware that female patients sometimes take E.D. medications as well, so be sure to ask all patients before administering nitroglycerin.

            Take care while transporting the patient as well.  The patient most likely will already be nervous or scared because of the stress brought on by having heart problems and being taken to the hospital in an ambulance, so a rough ride, harsh driving patterns or sirens wailing could increase the patient’s fear and apprehension, placing additional stress on the heart.  It is important that the patient reach the hospital quickly, but judicious use of sirens, and driving pattern should be balanced against the possibility of worsening the patient’s condition.

            Just keep in mind that cardiac problems can and will present in many different ways.  Recognize the signs of cardiac compromise and treat the patient for cardiac compromise according to local protocols and medical direction.  Always treat cardiac compromise with a high index of suspicion, treatments given will help, treatments not given will do the patient harm.  These patients need high concentration oxygen and prompt, safe transportation to definitive care.


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