Understanding the Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack

The signs and symptoms of a heart attack can vary significantly. And, there are differences between symptoms for men and women. The most common symptom is chest pain or pressure.

The chest pain one might feel has been described to me as heaviness, a squeezing sensation or tightness. Some patients have told me it feels “like an elephant sitting on my chest.” But, chest pain is not the only sign associated with a heart attack.

Abdominal pain near or below your ribs can be a sign of heart attack. This type of pain is easy for some to dismiss as indigestion. But, it should raise a red flag for you if it is unusual, especially if you do not have a history of stomach problems. Do not delay seeking treatment. Other signs include nausea along with any combination of abdominal pain, chest discomfort or breaking out into a cold sweat.

Shortness of breath accompanied by an increase in chest discomfort may also be a sign of a heart attack. Some patients have reported pain that radiates to the right or left shoulder, the jaw (especially for women), or the middle of the back. Along with any of these sensations, feeling faint, dizzy, or unusually exhausted could also be signs of a heart attack.

Heart attacks are not always easy to diagnose. Symptoms frequently overlap with other common conditions and the severity of the symptoms can vary. Some of the signs might be subtle and not all of the signs might be present at the same time.

I have seen some instances where a patients’ only presenting sign was jaw pain acting like a toothache. My main point is, seek medical attention if you have any of these signs and you think you may be having an emergency.

A brief personal story: I never had chest pain before. One day, while golfing, I felt a funny sensation in the middle of my chest. It was more suspicious than uncomfortable, but I suspected that something could be amiss. 

I went as quickly as I could to the doctor. My cardiac workup revealed I had 99 percent blockage in a major artery. A major health emergency was narrowly avoided!

The lesson here is to listen to your body. Don’t ignore the signs of trouble, especially if you fit the profile of a person who is at greater risk of cardiac issues. It is worth noting that Hispanic and African American women have a higher rate of cardiac disease than the general population.

As always, if you think you are having an emergency please call 911 and get to the emergency department as quickly as possible.


Juan F. Fitz, MD, FACEP, is an emergency physician in Lubbock, Texas.

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