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How to Tell If You're Having a Heart Attack

How to Tell if you're having a heart attack

Would you know how to recognize the signs of a heart attack if you or someone you know was having one?

Over a million people have a heart attack every year. About half of those will die, and many more will suffer permanent heart muscle damage. The reason? They don't recognize the symptoms and they don't call 9-1-1.

Many times we think a heart attack is like what is seen on TV, a "Hollywood heart attack,” which happens when a middle-aged man suddenly clutches his chest, grimaces, and breaks into a cold sweat. Although this happens occasionally in real life, most heart attacks start slowly with mild pain or discomfort. The pain may become more pronounced when the victim is active, and may disappear when they're at rest.

Victims may not know what's happening, so they'll wait too long to get treatment. They could have these symptoms for days or even weeks. About two-thirds of victims are warned well in advance by episodes of chest pain, shortness of breath or fatigue before the "big" episode itself happens.

If you experience these symptoms, it's crucial that you call 9-1-1. Many times Emergency Medical Services (EMS) providers are able to recognize a heart attack and their knowledge allows them to start treatments immediately. EMS providers can get you the care you need much faster than if you had someone drive you to the hospital. You may have to wait much longer for the treatment you need if you drive yourself instead of calling 9-1-1.

The medical term for a heart attack is "Myocardial Infarction" or "MI", which means death of the heart muscle. Heart muscle begins to die when the arteries get blocked by a clot. If blood isn't restored quickly tissue death can become permanent, so it's important to get treatment right away.



The most common symptom that both men and women will experience is chest discomfort. In women it may not be the most obvious symptom, as it is for men.

Men's symptoms might include:

• A prolonged crushing pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest. Symptoms might range from mild to severe and may come and go

• Often the pain radiates to the neck, arms, jaw, back or stomach

• Shortness of breath, lightheadedness, nausea, cold sweat/chills, or cold clammy skin

Women are more likely to have these symptoms:

• Unusual fatigue

• Nausea

• Dizziness or lightheadedness

• Abdominal discomfort that may feel like indigestion

• Discomfort described as pressure/tightness or ache in the neck, shoulder, or upper back

You may even have some of these signs in the weeks before an actual heart attack. If you develop any of these, call your doctor so that he or she can perform tests to determine if you're likely to have a heart attack. Doctors can perform non-invasive tests, such as blood work, EKG, and a stress test of the heart before invasive tests are needed.



There are several things you can do to improve your heart's health. Ask your doctor, nurse, and family or friends for help. Together you can set goals to reduce the things that raise your risk of a heart attack.

• Don't smoke and avoid other people's tobacco smoke

• Treat high blood pressure, if you have it

• Eat a healthy diet that's low in fat, cholesterol, and salt

• Exercise at least 30 minutes on most or all days of the week

• Keep your weight in the normal range

• See your doctor for regular check-ups

• Take your medicines exactly as prescribed

• Control your blood sugar if you have diabetes

• Reduce your cholesterol

Unfortunately, there are some risk factors that you can't change. Age is one. More than 80% of those who die from a heart attack are over the age of 65. Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women. Heredity, including race, is a big one. African Americans have a higher risk of severe high blood pressure than Caucasians, and, therefore, a higher risk of heart attacks. Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop it themselves.  If you have these risk factors that you can't control, it becomes more important to control the ones you can.

Learn to recognize these symptoms, and call 9-1-1 immediately when they happen.

To learn more about treatment for those having a heart attack or cardiac arrhythmias, check out our article, “Using an AED Machine.”





Author Bio: Rick  became an EMT Basic in 1996, and currently works as an Advanced EMT. He spent several years as an EMT/Firefighter and CERT instructor in Pleasant Grove, UT. He is also a First Aid and BLS instructor. He’s worked at Timpanogos hospital for 16 years, spending several years working in the Emergency Room. He currently works in the ICU as a Telemetry Technician. He loves sharing his experience and knowledge of first and emergency preparedness with others. 

7 thoughts on “How to Tell If You're Having a Heart Attack”

  • Lady RN

    Seven years ago I had a heart attack which went unrecognized for 15 hours, even though I was under the nearly constant, direct care of a physician, first in an express care center, and later in a hospital. Not once did anyone as much as lay a stethoscope on my chest or even think about an EKG. I had two symptoms, severe epigastric pain and vomiting of several hours' duration. I went in a 7 AM, and it wasn't until after 11 PM that an EKG was done or blood drawn for enzyme levels. I had an MI, and was left with an enlarged heart, and years of congestive heart failure. Three weeks ago my husband came to me complaining of a very severe headache. I took his blood pressure and told him to get in the car; his BP was through the roof. I took him to our cardiologist, who ran an EKG and nothing showed, but he also had us go the hospital lab for a blood draw, and there was the evidence in his troponin and CPK enzyme levels. He was having a heart attack with none of the usual suspect symptoms. With ER support all night, he not only survived, but with no damage. The next day he had a cardiac cath, and the following day a CABG - a triple bypass. He's recovering extremely well, since he had no heart damage at all. Bottom line, if you have pain anywhere, seek help. You just never know what's causing it.

    • beprepared

      Lady RN,
      I am glad that your husband is doing well now. I recently heard a similar story from a man who lived in my complex where his father-in-law just thought he had broncitis, but he also had a heart attack without even knowing it or having the usual symptoms. So yes, it's important to go get help for any unusual pain you're experiencing.

  • Gene LaFeet

    These are very good suggestions for taking charge of a bad situation and not waiting for it to eventually kill you; I appreciate the good advice.

    HOWEVER: The repeated warnings about cholesterol, salt and low fat have been pretty much discredited by those researchers not bought and sold by Big Pharma. Those with heart attacks that proved fatal are about equally divided between those with high cholesterol and "normal" cholesterol.

    It appears it is not the cholesterol that is the culprit--you need this critical substance for joints, for instance--but homosystine which pits the arteries and causes cholesterol to collect there. Per the usual, we are taking boatloads of drugs with nasty side effects to treat the wrong problem. Many of the same facts suggest fats and salt also have been given a black eye that doesn't hold up to real scientific research.

    I would strongly suggest that folks get the whole story on cholesterol, fat and salt... and not just the Big Pharma version. Ever heard the expression "Never ask a barber if you need a haircut?" Well, never ask Big Pharma and Big Food Manufacturers if you need drugs and fad foods.


    Besides calling 911 it is important to immediately take one 325 mg aspirin tablet. Aspirin acts as an immediate anticoagulant as a myocardial infarction is a blood clot in one of the coronary arteries. C. Choi RN

  • Steve

    I am told I had a MI last year. EKG came back same as one taken 6 months before. Only blood test for heart emzime that was slightly above the angina level said MI. I only had pain in sholders and nothing else.

  • glen

    For those having chest pain- is this acid reflux, gall stones, or the more critical heart attack? Maybe the question should be 'whose life or lives will be affected if you aren't there? '
    Do you want to be a distant memory, a burden, or still around to help with kids, grandkids, and the family?


    My warning came as several instances of accelerated pulse to 166 beats a minute. plus got on the treadmill one day going slowly and my chest and back burned. Turns out i had a 95 and 75 percent blockage and a leaking heart valve. Heart attack waiting to happen according to the doctor.

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