Heart attacks don’t always start with the sharp chest pain that you see on TV or in movies. Studies have shown up to a third of people who’ve had heart attacks had no chest pain at all. Knowing how to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack as they’re happening could save your life, but knowing what symptoms look like even before that could also improve your long-term heart health.
What is a Heart Attack?
A myocardial infarction, commonly referred to as a heart attack, happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Coronary arteries become thicker and more rigid over time due to a buildup of fat, cholesterol and plaque. Plaque can break open, forming a blood clot that blocks blood flow to the heart. As the amount of oxygen reaching the heart decreases, the heart muscle begins to die, and the result is a heart attack.
The Difference Between Angina, Cardiac Arrest and Heart Attack
Angina, cardiac arrest and heart attack are the three most serious causes of chest pain and other symptoms of heart disease. It’s important to understand the differences. The symptoms of angina can feel like the symptoms of a heart attack. Angina is chest pain that occurs in people diagnosed with ischemic heart disease. It usually occurs following physical activity and goes away after a period of rest.
Cardiac arrest is a problem with the heart’s electrical system. It causes the heart to beat rapidly, irregularly or to stop completely. The result is a stoppage of blood flowing to the brain, lungs and other organs. During cardiac arrest, you’ll struggle to breathe or stop altogether, becoming unresponsive very quickly.
While a heart attack can be a cause of cardiac arrest, this isn’t usually the case. A heart attack is caused by a blockage of blood flow to the heart causing symptoms that do not go away. A common analogy is that a heart attack is a plumbing problem and cardiac arrest is an electrical problem.
Not sure which one you’re experiencing? Don’t take the risk. Call 9-1-1 and get an ambulance ride to the nearest hospital. Chest pain isn’t something you should ignore, especially if you’ve got a history of high blood pressure or other heart problems.
Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack
Some heart attacks come about suddenly and cause significant pain, but the onset of most is slower and with only slight discomfort. If you experience any of the symptoms of a heart attack, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention. Every second counts in limiting the damage caused by a heart attack. Listen to what your body is telling you if you experience any of the following:
- Chest pain or discomfort: This is the most common symptom of a heart attack but does not always occur. It presents itself as pain or discomfort in the center or just to the left of the center of the chest. Usually described as the feeling of pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain, it can last for several minutes or go away only to return. You might think of it as something heavy sitting on your chest. This pain doesn’t change when you change positions.
- Upper body pain or discomfort: Similar sensations of pain or discomfort can be felt in either or both arms, the neck, jaw, back or stomach.
- Shortness of breath: This can be in combination with the symptoms listed above or may be the only symptom. It’s usually persistent and continues even when resting.
- Nausea or lightheadedness: Nausea from a heart attack can be similar to having a stomach virus but generally has a quicker onset and may or may not include vomiting.
- A cold sweat: Heart attacks can also produce a cold, clammy sensation with perspiration present that isn’t associated with physical exertion.
What a Heart Attack Looks Like for Women
The most common heart attack symptom among women is still chest pain or discomfort. However, women are more likely than men to not have any chest pain but a subtler combination of the other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea and upper body pain other than in the chest. It’s probably due to these distinctions that heart attacks affect women more severely than men.
Silent Heart Attacks are Very Common
It’s possible to have a heart attack without realizing it. These “silent heart attacks” make up 45 percent of all heart attacks and strike men more frequently than women. The symptoms are similar but are less severe than those associated with a classic heart attack. They’re also often ignored, particularly among men. Persistent fatigue, shortness of breath or heartburn could all indicate a silent heart attack. Long-term effects of silent heart attacks can be just as devastating as those of a traditional heart attack, so see your doctor if you suspect a problem.
Heart attacks can present in a number of ways. It’s not enough to prepare to react to obvious chest pain. Know your body and take action when something’s not right. If you experience any of the symptoms listed here, seek medical attention immediately. The quicker you get help, the more likely you can halt the damage from a heart attack – or rule out other health problems.