Women experiencing neck pain, one of the less obvious heart attack symptoms

Heart attacks don’t always look like they do in the movies: an older male clutching his chest or left arm, falling to the ground. For one thing, a person having a heart attack may well be a woman. Heart disease doesn’t discriminate: it is the leading cause of death for both men and women.

It is true that the most common symptom of a heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, is chest pain. But for many the signs can be different and more subtle. Some even show up weeks before an attack. Symptoms are often mistaken for something else like heartburn or even the flu, causing a delay in seeking treatment.

When it comes to a heart attack, the time it takes to get treatment is critical. Your best chance at getting the help you need comes from recognizing the signs and symptoms immediately when they happen.

Most common signs of a heart attack

The following symptoms paint a picture many of us are familiar with, and should prompt us to seek medical attention.

  • Chest pain
  • Lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting
  • Pain in the jaw, neck or back
  • Shoulder or arm pain
  • Shortness of breath

If you notice these signs in yourself or someone else, call 911 immediately.

Less common signs of a heart attack

A heart attack isn’t always recognizable by symptoms found in the above list, especially for those who don’t experience chest or left arm pain. But there may be less common symptoms present that include:

  • Exhaustion
  • Muscle aches
  • Heartburn
  • Paleness
  • Cold sweats

In 2012, talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell had a heart attack that was almost missed because her symptoms weren’t obvious to her. Fortunately she sought care the next day and underwent life-saving surgery. This close call led her to partner with HBO in 2015 to raise awareness about the more subtle signs of a heart attack, to which she gave the acronym, HEPPP. This stands stand for Hot, Exhausted, Pain, Pale and Puke.

Try to become familiar with the subtle signs of a heart attack, and if you experience these signs and symptoms and suspect you are having a heart attack, call 911 right away.

Silent heart attacks

Symptoms can also be much less intense or long lasting than expected, leading to what is called a silent heart attack or silent myocardial infarction (SMI). These can occur in women but are more common in men. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five heart attacks is silent. This means that damage to the heart has occurred without a person even knowing it.

“SMI symptoms can feel so mild, and be so brief, they often get confused for regular discomfort or another less serious problem, and thus men ignore them,” says Harvard cardiologist Dr. Jorge Plutzky in this article.

Heart attacks can be prevented

The CDC tells us, nearly 650,000 Americans die from heart disease each year. Early treatment of a heart attack reduces that risk. Knowing the signs and symptoms, subtle and not so subtle, will help you seek out care as soon as possible. Even better, though, is preventing heart disease in the first place.

Many of the risk factors for heart disease, like poor diet, tobacco use, and lack of exercise can be changed. Other risk factors like high blood pressure and diabetes can be reduced with medication. If you haven’t done so already, find out what your own risk factors are, and set your sights on doing something about them. We can help you do that. Contact our office and make an appointment for a physical today.