The subtle signs of a heart attack

Heart Health
Feb 11, 2021

Here’s why women should particularly be aware of all the symptoms of a heart attack

Heart attacks aren’t always as dramatic as television and film make them seem. It isn’t always someone clutching their chest and falling to the ground. In reality, most people experience subtle signs they are having a heart attack.

The most common symptom of a heart attack is going to be some type of chest discomfort, says Dr. Claude Su, cardiologist with St. Joseph’s/Candler Physician Network – Cardiology Associates of Savannah.

Dr. Claude Su, Savannah cardiologist

“But it may not always show up as pain. It may be shortness of breath, sometimes nausea or sweating,” Dr. Su says.

A heart attack, also called myocardial infarction, happens when one or more parts of the heart muscle don’t get enough oxygen. That typically occurs when blood flow to the heart muscle is blocked.

Related Article: Understanding heart attacks: Causes, symptoms and treatment

Someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. That’s about 805,000 Americans experiencing a heart attack each year.

And, about 1 in 5 heart attacks is silent, according to the CDC, meaning the damage is done, but the person is not aware of it.

“A sudden death heart attack can happen, but most of the time it’s more subtle than that,” says Peggy Batts, clinical nurse educator for the emergency departments at both St. Joseph’s Hospital and Candler Hospital. “Sometimes it can be subtle enough that people are unaware that they are experiencing a heart attack.”

Each person may have slightly different symptoms of a heart attack. Knowing the most common signs of a heart attack can be lifesaving:

  • Chest pain or tightness or a feeling of fullness or pressure in the chest
  • Pain in other areas of the upper body: arms, jaw, back or neck
  • Sweating or lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting

These are common symptoms in both men and women, but women are more likely than men to experience associated symptoms without chest pain, Batts says.

Peggy Batts, Savannah ED nurse

“That’s why it’s important for women to understand how significant these other symptoms could be. Frequently women will delay treatment, blaming neck, back or jaw pain on stress or nausea on a stomach bug,” Batts says. “Women definitely need to educate themselves about the symptoms other than chest pain that can occur. I’ve found that women can be very astute when something is just not quite right with someone in their family, and I hope that they will use those same instincts with their own symptoms.”

Related Article: Heart attack symptoms in women can differ than men

If you experience any of the signs of a heart attack, you want to get an evaluation promptly, Dr. Su says. If it is a heart attack, every minute counts.

“You need to get prompt treatment to get that artery open and stop the heart attack,” Dr. Su says. “You don’t want to be sitting at home waiting and waiting, which causes damage to the heart muscle.”

“Time is heart muscle.”

Protect your heart now

Knowing all the signs of a heart attack is important, but there are steps you can take now to reduce your chances of ever having a heart attack.

“Everybody should try to follow a heart-healthy diet,” Dr. Su says, suggesting the DASH or Mediterranean diets. “When you couple that with regular exercise, good blood pressure and cholesterol control, no smoking and weight control – those are things you can do for a healthy heart.”

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