You’ve no doubt seen movies or television shows in which a character clutches his or her chest for a moment and then collapses because of a heart attack. Or maybe you’ve actually seen someone experience such an event—or suffered a heart attack yourself. If so, it’s possible that your symptoms included tightness in the chest. But you may have been one of the many victims who experienced other symptoms of heart attack.
Signs of heart attack vary from person to person. The symptoms you had during one heart attack may not be the same ones you experience if you’re unfortunate enough to have a second. Typical symptoms also differ somewhat between men and women. Signs of a heart attack in men, for instance, are more likely to feel a sudden tightness in the chest, while signs of heart attack in women may be more likely to include pain in the upper back and dizziness.
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Signs to Remember: 7 Symptoms of Heart Attack
Man or woman, it’s important to recognize these signs of heart attack, especially if you or a loved one is at risk of cardiovascular disease:
- Pressure or pain in the back, neck, or jaw.
- Shortness of breath.
- Nausea, sometimes to the point of vomiting.
- Discomfort in the upper abdomen.
- Heartburn or indigestion.
- Arm pain, often in the left arm, but could be in either or both arms.
Another atypical symptom of a heart attack is a vague feeling that you’re not quite right. You feel ill, but without specific pains or other complaints. This can make it difficult to know how to react, but if this feeling persists, trust your instinct. If you sense that something is wrong, see a doctor.
Even if the signs of a heart attack you’re experiencing are mild or hard to define, the heart attack itself may be quite serious. Your heart can experience just as much injury from a heart attack with no chest pain as one with that “elephant sitting on your chest” feeling.
Heart Attack Risk Factors
If you have heart problems or are at high risk for a heart attack, it’s vital that you take your risks seriously and respond quickly when symptoms appear. The sooner you respond to signs of a heart attack, the more likely it is that you can receive treatment that will minimize damage to the heart muscle and give you a greater chance of having a healthy recovery.
Among the risk factors for heart attack and heart conditions are:
- Advancing age
- High cholesterol
- Inactive lifestyle
- Family history of heart disease
- Previous heart attack or stroke
- Autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis
If you experience one or more of those risk factors, then you should memorize the symptoms of heart attack and make sure those who live and work with you know them, too. If a heart attack occurs, you may be able to explain your symptoms and call 911, but you may not. A family member or someone else close to you may be the one who has to call the paramedics.
In general, it’s best to call 911 rather than be driven to the hospital. And under no circumstances should you try to drive yourself to the hospital if you suspect you’re having a heart attack.
SIGNS OF A HEART ATTACK—AND WHAT TO DO
Symptoms vary but if you experience signs of heart problems, it’s a medical emergency. A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction (“myo” means muscle; “cardial” stands for heart), occurs when oxygen-rich blood is blocked from reaching the heart. Most heart attacks are the result of coronary artery disease, which is a build of waxy plaque in the arteries. This plaque can build up over many years. It can rupture and cause blood to clot, which inhibits blood flow. Without blood flow, part of the heart muscle begins to die and scar tissue develops. Hardened scar tissue can cause problems with heart function. Getting immediate medical attention at the first sign of heart attack can limit heart muscle damage.
Knowing the signs of a heart attack can help you act quickly. Though the signs for men and woman can vary, the most common heart attack signs for both genders are chest pain that can feel like pressure or squeezing (usually in the center or left side of the chest), upper body discomfort (in both or one arm, the back, shoulders neck or jaw), and shortness of breath (which can occur with little to no exertion). Other symptoms include feeling very tired for no reason (sometimes for days), nausea and vomiting, and sudden dizziness.
Not everyone has the same heart attack warning signs, but the more you have, the greater the likelihood it may the sign of a heart attack. “If you suspect a heart attack, never hesitate to call 9-1-1,” says Lauren Harning, Exercise Physiologist, UCLA Cardiopulmonary Rehab Center. “The sooner you get medical attention, the less potential damage to your heart.”
Originally published in 2016, this post is regularly updated.