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Can a Pulse Oximeter Detect Heart Attack?

Can a Pulse Oximeter Detect Heart Attack?

, by Aussie Pharma Direct, 5 min reading time

A pulse oximeter is a small, portable device commonly used in medical settings to measure vital signs such as oxygen saturation levels and pulse rate. They are also commonly used by individuals at home to monitor their health, especially those with respiratory illnesses or with chronic conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, heart failure or even anemia.

Yes, one of the highlights here is that pulse oximeters measure pulse rates, which prompts the question: Are they actually useful in detecting the occurrence of a heart attack, or even predicting it?

In this blog, we will explore the functionality of pulse oximeters - discussing their typical uses, and their limitations.

Understanding heart attacks

A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart muscle is blocked, usually by a blood clot. This blockage deprives the heart muscle of oxygen and nutrients, leading to tissue damage or death if not promptly treated. 

Heart attacks are typically caused by a buildup of plaque (atherosclerosis) in the coronary arteries, which supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle. Plaque is made up of cholesterol, fat, and other substances that can accumulate over time, narrowing the arteries and restricting blood flow.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the common risk factors for heart attacks include:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Stress

The symptoms of a heart attack can vary from person to person, but common signs and symptoms include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort, often described as pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain
  • Pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue

But it’s important to note that not everyone experiences the classic symptoms of a heart attack. Some individuals, particularly women and older adults, may have atypical symptoms or may even experience a "silent" heart attack with minimal or no symptoms.

How pulse oximeters work

At the core of their functionality, how pulse oximeters work is that they measure oxygen saturation levels in the blood and pulse rate by utilising light absorption. 

By analysing the amount of light absorbed by the blood, the pulse oximeter can determine the oxygen saturation level, which represents the percentage of haemoglobin in the blood that is carrying oxygen. Additionally, the device detects the rhythmic pulsations of arterial blood flow, allowing it to calculate the pulse rate.

Now, on to the crucial question: Can pulse oximeters detect heart attacks?

While pulse oximeters are invaluable tools for monitoring oxygen saturation levels and pulse rate, their ability to detect heart attacks is limited. It's important to understand these limitations to avoid relying solely on pulse oximeter readings in cases of suspected heart attack.

What happens during a heart attack?

During a heart attack, changes in blood oxygenation and pulse rate can occur due to damage to the heart muscle and the resulting reduction in blood flow to the heart. When the heart muscle doesn't receive enough oxygen, the body responds by increasing the heart rate to try to deliver more oxygen to the heart. This increase in pulse rate can be measured by a pulse oximeter. 

At the same time, the body may decrease the amount of oxygen it uses in other organs to divert more oxygen to the heart, potentially leading to a decrease in blood oxygen levels. In some cases, the blood oxygen level may decrease to below 90%.

It's essential to note that these changes in blood oxygen and pulse rate during a heart attack are not specific to this condition and can occur in other cardiovascular conditions as well. Therefore, relying solely on pulse oximeter readings may delay appropriate medical intervention in cases of suspected heart attack.

It's crucial to take into account the symptoms you're feeling in addition to what you are seeing on the pulse oximeter to get at least a good sense whether a heart attack is imminent. If you suspect that you or someone else is experiencing a heart attack, seek immediate medical attention.

Other uses of pulse oximeters in heart health

Beyond their role in monitoring oxygen saturation levels and pulse rate, pulse oximeters have additional applications in monitoring heart health. 

They are also useful in monitoring patients during the recovery phase from heart-related procedures, such as cardiac surgery or angioplasty. These procedures can temporarily affect heart function and oxygen delivery to the body's tissues. By regularly monitoring oxygen saturation levels and pulse rate with a pulse oximeter, healthcare providers can ensure that patients are recovering adequately and identify any potential complications early on.


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