What Are the Signs of a Heart Attack?

February 14, 2024

Recognizing the Signs of a Heart Attack Could Save Your Life

An older man’s eyes open wide. He grabs his chest with both hands, falling to his knees. A stranger rushes to his side, calls 911 and strains to make the man comfortable. An ambulance arrives, whisking the man off to a hospital for emergency care.

If you think that’s a pretty good summary of what happens when people have a heart attack, it’s no wonder. After all, most of us will never see someone having a heart attack — except on TV. But TV shows can’t capture what a heart attack is really like, especially since the signs of a heart attack can vary from person to person.

“Some people have the classic chest tightness, ‘something is sitting on my chest radiating into my left arm,’” says Ralph Levy, MD, chief of Adult Cardiac Medical Services at Memorial Cardiac and Vascular Institute. “Some patients present with arm pain only. Some with only jaw pain or a toothache, some with indigestion. For some patients, it’s back pain. Some just have shortness of breath. For other patients, it’s just profound fatigue. Patients need to know symptoms can vary. And if they have symptoms, they should come to the emergency room.”

Heart Attack Signs and Symptoms

Heart Attack Signs and Symptoms

Patients need to know symptoms can vary. And if they have symptoms, they should come to the emergency room.

Dr. Ralph Levy

Heart Attack Symptoms

A heart attack happens when the arteries that supply your heart with blood and oxygen become blocked. A buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances is to blame.

When the arteries are blocked, your heart muscle starts to die. So, knowing the signs of a heart attack can save your life.

Within 20 minutes, damage to the heart muscle can be permanent. Unfortunately, by the time some people seek help, it’s too late for life-saving surgery to open their arteries.

The most common signs of a heart attack are chest pain and discomfort, including heaviness, pressure and tightness. Other signs of a heart attack include:

  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including the arms, back, jaw, neck and shoulder
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Nausea or lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort

Men and Women Experience Heart Attacks Differently

Chest pain is the most common sign of a heart attack in both men and women.

But in women, the chest pain is not always as intense — in fact, they may not have chest pain at all. Instead, women may have a combination of less-obvious symptoms such as:

  • dizziness,
  • fatigue,
  • heartburn, and
  • nausea.

Compared with men, women are more likely to have symptoms while resting or asleep, and their heart attacks are often triggered by stressful emotions rather than physical exertion.

That difference is important to keep in mind if you are experiencing symptoms and wondering if you might be having a heart attack.

Heart Attack Risk Factors

Learn what the risk factors of a heart attack are from Ralph Levy, MD, chief of Adult Cardiac Medical Services at Memorial Cardiac and Vascular Institute.

What to Do if You Think You’re Having a Heart Attack?

If you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, don’t delay. Call 911 immediately or go to the nearest emergency room for help.

Your Provider Can Help You Know Your Risk and Lower It

A heart attack is often the first sign of coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is the most common type of heart disease in the U.S., accounting for about 610,000 deaths annually.

Family history plays a role in a person’s risk for heart disease. But you can’t control your family history. Luckily, you can control many other risk factors, including:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Not being physically active
  • Obesity or being overweight
  • Poor nutrition
  • Smoking
  • Stress

Dr. Levy urges people to work with their primary care provider or a heart specialist to understand their heart disease risk factors. Then, together, they can find ways to reduce those factors. Regular exercise and a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables are essential. Medicine can also help, especially for people with high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

“If you have risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes or if you used to smoke heavily — if you need to modify your risks, we can be in this journey together,” Dr. Levy says. “Maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle, treating your blood pressure, maintaining your weight, controlling cholesterol — all these strategies are hugely important.”

Make an Appointment

Do you need a provider who can help you understand your risk for heart disease and how to reduce it? Our online directory can help. You can schedule an in-person appointment or video visit online or by calling Central Scheduling at 945-276-5500.