Beyond Chest Pain: Recognizing the Signs of a Heart Attack


As we approach the month of February, also known as American Heart Month, we asked cardiologist Dr. Letitia Anderson to explain heart attack signs and what to watch for. And be sure to visit BestMEDICINE throughout the month of February, where we’ll share valuable tips on taking care of one of most vital organs in your body — the heart.

We’ve seen it on TV and the movies countless times: A man grabs his chest and falls to the ground, the victim of an apparent heart attack. Rarely do we see the same scenario involving a woman. But heart disease isn’t exclusive to men. In fact, it is the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States. More than 600,000 Americans die of heart disease every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 735,000 people in the U.S. suffer a heart attack each year.

We tapped Letitia Anderson, M.D., cardiologist with the Renown Institute for Heart & Vascular Health, to explain common (and not-so-common) signs of a heart attack.

Knowing the Signs of a Heart Attack

First off, what are the most common symptoms?

The on-screen portrayals of a heart attack aren’t totally off base. Chest pain is the most common sign, especially for men. It often originates in the center of the chest and radiates to the left arm, sometimes extending to the wrist and fingers. Victims have described the feeling as a tightness, pressure, squeezing or fullness — the pain may last several minutes at a time or come and go intermittently. And while the pain generally sticks to the left side of the body, pain on the right side is not uncommon.

Sometimes, however, patients don’t feel any chest pain, and the signs of a heart attack are more subtle. Individuals may experience pain in the jaw and teeth, back, shoulders, between the shoulder blades, and in the abdomen — and is often mistaken for heartburn. Other symptoms may include extreme, often unexplained fatigue that can last for days, shortness of breath, dizziness or lightheadedness, nausea and vomiting.

Sometimes victims may break out in a sweat, experience irregular or rapid heartbeat, or feel anxiety or something comparable to a panic attack. Women are more likely to experience these more understated symptoms than men. And sadly, in the absence of chest pain, healthy women may not even realize what they are feeling is preempting a heart attack. Many don’t think it can happen to them and ignore the signs, attributing symptoms to general fatigue or the onset of a cold or the flu. In fact, many women experience symptoms for weeks leading up to a heart attack without giving them a second thought. 

So how do you know when to call 9-1-1?

In the case of heart attacks, minutes matter. If you suspect any symptoms at all, it’s best to have them checked right away. Remember: Calling 9-1-1 is the fastest way to get lifesaving treatment. Don’t try to drive yourself or have a loved one drive you to hospital, because the care you receive in the ambulance could make all the difference.

What are the risk factors for heart attack in both men and women?

Age is a significant risk factor for both men and women. Most people who die from heart disease are 65 or older. Other health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, family history of heart disease and being overweight or smoking increase your risk as well. Fortunately, these are risks you can address through a healthier lifestyle.

It’s important that individuals understand their risk of heart disease and heart attack. Talk to your healthcare provider. Discuss your family history, questionable health issues and symptoms, and any stress that could affect your physical well-being. Learn your numbers and how they impact your risk of heart disease and heart attack. Your doctor may recommend tests such as an electrocardiogram (EKG) to see if your heart activity is normal or an echocardiogram to check your heart for damage.

What can people do to reduce their risk?

As with many chronic health conditions, living a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your risk. Eat a heart-healthy diet, exercise at least 30 minutes each day and if you smoke, stop. Smoking hardens your arteries and restricts your blood flow.

Want to learn more? Renown’s new Healthy Heart Program is part of an all-new Wellness Network that includes executive physicals, an in-depth physical exam that can be customized to your personal health needs, as well as Health Improvement Programs, which includes a team of registered dietitians who can help you learn to read nutrition labels and balance your meals.