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Heart Attack Signs & Symptoms

Chest discomfort or pain may be a key warning symptom of a heart attack.

The key is not to attempt self-diagnosis. Instead, always call 911 for immediate emergency help.

Many ambulances now have the ability to perform electrocardiograms (ECGs) on heart attack patients. By receiving an ECG while in transport, your wait time in the emergency department (ED) significantly decreases, speeding up your arrival to the cardiac cath lab for treatment.

Is it pizza pain, palpitations ... or a heart problem?

Chest pain can be a symptom of indigestion, a heart attack, or another condition. But because your chest pain could be serious, it should always be evaluated promptly.

According to the guidelines of The American Heart Association (AHA), anyone who has chest pain that worsens over a five-minute period should chew an aspirin and immediately call 911 for emergency medical help.

What is Worsening Chest Pain?

Worsening chest pain, especially if accompanied by shortness of breath, weakness, or lightheadedness, can be a sign of a heart attack.

Chest pain varies for different people. Sometimes it feels like a crushing sensation, as though someone is sitting on your chest. For others, it may feel like a squeezing or pressure on your chest. The pain may feel like it is “spreading” to your shoulders, neck, back, and arms. Maybe the pain is in your back, jaw, or stomach. Sometimes it's accompanied by nausea, lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, or shortness of breath.

Not everyone having a heart attack experiences typical symptoms. Although the more signs and symptoms you have, the more likely that you are having a heart attack.

Whatever the symptoms, the quicker a heart attack is treated, the more likely the person is to survive without long-term complications.

Other Conditions that Can Cause Chest Pain

Other conditions that can cause chest pain include those listed below; however, any of these symptoms can also be present with a heart attack.

  • Indigestion usually is accompanied by burping, belching, heartburn, nausea, and a sour taste in the mouth
  • A panic attack usually is accompanied by heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and anxiety
  • Chest-wall or muscle pain from exercise or injury can be made worse when the sore area is pressed with a finger
  • The breathing pain of respiratory infections often can be made worse by coughing and deep breathing

Bottom line, do not assume that you are just having indigestion or a panic attack. Always get medical help right away.

Be Prepared

If you or a family member has a heart condition or is at risk of a heart attack, take the following steps ahead of time.

  • Know which hospitals in your area provide 24-hour emergency cardiac care
  • Tell family and friends where they are
  • Post emergency rescue numbers on all phones
  • Stress with family and friends to call for emergency care if chest pain lasts more than a few minutes

What is a Heart Attack (or Myocardial Infarction)?

A heart attack happens when one or more areas of the heart muscle experience a severe or prolonged lack of oxygen caused by blocked blood flow to the heart muscle.

The blockage is often a result of atherosclerosis—a buildup of plaque composed of fat deposits, cholesterol, and other substances. Plaque ruptures and eventually a blood clot forms. The actual cause of a heart attack is a blood clot that forms within the plaque-obstructed area.

If the blood and oxygen supply is cut off severely or for a long period of time, muscle cells of the heart suffer damage and die. The result is dysfunction of the muscle of the heart in the area affected by the lack of oxygen.

Managing Heart Attack Risk Factors

You can help manage your risks for a heart attack by:

  • Meeting with your healthcare provider soon to see if you have risk factors that are genetic or inherited (cannot be changed or managed medically and through lifestyle changes)
  • Identifying which risk factors apply, then taking steps to eliminate or reduce them
  • Understanding conditions like high blood pressure or abnormal cholesterol levels, which may be "silent killers"
  • Modifying risk factors that are acquired (not inherited) through lifestyle changes

Consulting with your physician is the first step in making these changes.