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Heart attack symptoms can range from the obvious—sudden chest pain—to much more vague signs, such as back pain or a sense that something just isn’t right. So it’s important that you not only know what the list of heart attack symptoms includes, but how to react if those signs appear.
You should also know that mild heart attack symptoms, such as slight chest discomfort or a little lightheadedness, can result in the same kind of serious heart attack as one with much more painful or intense symptoms.
The Big Three
The three most common heart attack symptoms are chest pain or pressure; discomfort in the upper body; and shortness of breath.
The type of chest pain associated with a heart attack may feel like “squeezing” sensation in the chest or pressure, as though something heavy was on top of your chest.
Pain that starts in the chest may travel to the arms, back, neck, and jaw. You may also have an uncomfortable feeling in your upper abdomen, above the belly button. Arm pain may be isolated on your left side, but sometimes the pain is in both arms or just on your right.
In addition to chest pain and upper body discomfort, the other classic sign of a heart attack is shortness of breath. If you have trouble catching your breath after mild exertion—climbing a flight of stairs you normally take without any problem—call 911.
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A heart attack may present with all, some, or none of the previous symptoms. Instead, you may feel lightheaded. You may break out in a sweat for no reason. Or you may feel suddenly nauseated.
These are obviously symptoms that could indicate any number of medical problems. But they should be evaluated if they linger, and especially if they are accompanied by chest pain or one of the more traditional symptoms.
Women, in particular, are likely to experience these additional symptoms with or without chest pain. Women may also experience pain in the jaw, neck and upper back instead of, or in addition to, chest pain.
How to Respond
If any of these symptoms suddenly develops and there is no obvious cause (such as heartburn or shortness of breath after intense exercise or muscle strain in your back or arms), seek medical help immediately. Mild heart attack symptoms can be deceptive, but if these signs persist for several minutes call 911.
The sooner a heart attack can be diagnosed and treated, the less damage the heart will sustain.
Remember that heart attack symptoms can start out mild and gradually build in intensity. Or, they may come on like a freight train. Either case can result in a serious heart attack.
And unlike the version of heart attacks we often see in the movies, a person who suffers such an event doesn’t necessarily end up unconscious on the ground. Heart attack symptoms may last until they are treated. But mild heart attack symptoms, or more serious signs of a heart attack, may disappear after a few hours. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should ignore them. If you experienced unexplainable heart attack symptoms that dissipate after a while, you should still see a doctor.
Symptoms also may come and go over a period of an hour or more. This is an especially strong signal that your heart may be in trouble.
It’s also important to simply trust your instinct. Many heart attack survivors report that they felt something was seriously wrong but they didn’t know exactly what. If your gut tells you that something’s not right, listen to that voice.
Don’t Drive Yourself
If you have symptoms but still feel generally okay, don’t risk driving yourself to the emergency room. Your symptoms may increase dramatically in a hurry, making you a threat to yourself and others on the road.
Paramedics may also be able to evaluate your condition quickly and start treatment before you get to a hospital.
When You’re at Risk
Recognizing heart attack symptoms and knowing how to respond are important for everyone to know. But this information is particularly vital for anyone who is at risk for a heart attack. Risk factors include obesity, diabetes, a history of smoking, family history of heart disease, high cholesterol, old age, and a sedentary lifestyle.
If you’re unsure about your odds of having a heart attack, talk with your doctor about your risk as well as how to manage your risk factors. In addition, you can check out the Heart Attack Risk Calculator at the website of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
If you’re at a higher risk of having a heart attack, learn the symptoms and make sure you and your loved ones have a plan if those symptoms ever develop.
Originally posted in June 2016 and updated.