Pay Attention to the Signs of a Possible Heart Attack Warning

By Michael J. Newmark, MD, FACC, FSCAI

Knowing the signs of a possible heart attack could save your life if you seek medical attention immediately. Remember that in a cardiac emergency, minutes matter. Call 9-1-1 immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest. This symptom is the most common in men and in women. It might last more than a few minutes, or it might go away and then come back.
  • Feeling pain or discomfort in one or both arms, in your shoulders, or in your neck or jaw or both. Women are more likely than men to feel back pain
  • Shortness of breath can occur with or without exertion or chest discomfort. This is more common in women than in men
  • Feeling lightheaded or fainting
  • Breaking into a cold sweat or turning pale
  • Feeling pain or discomfort in your stomach, with nausea, dizziness and vomiting
  • Unexplained anxiety, weakness or fatigue

Before a heart attack, you might notice these symptoms of cardiovascular problems after normal physical activity:

  • Undue fatigue
  • Feeling that your heart is beating too fast or skipping a beat, known as palpitations
  • Difficult or labored breathing, known as dyspnea
  • Anginal pain (chest pain). Stable angina is chest discomfort associated with exercise or physical or emotional stress. Rest or nitroglycerin or both may relieve this. Unstable angina is unexpected and more severe, prolonged chest pain while at rest. Treat this as an emergency, as it is an acute coronary syndrome. This pain results from reduced blood flow to the heart, which is caused by the narrowing of the coronary arteries in atherosclerosis.

Remember that not all of the warning signs occur in every attack, and the signs can sometimes disappear and return.

For women the signs can be subtle and even confusing. Some women experiencing a heart attack describe upper back pressure that feels like squeezing or a rope being tied around them. Others report a hot or burning sensation, or even tenderness to touch, that may be located in the back, shoulders, arms or jaw. Often they have no actual chest discomfort at all.

Calling 9-1-1 for an ambulance will bring the care that you need much more quickly than driving to a hospital. The emergency medical services team has the training and equipment to revive someone whose heart has stopped. Also, patients who arrive by ambulance usually receive treatment more quickly than those who arrive by car.

Learn more about the emergency services at Northern Nevada Medical Center.