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Early Signs of a Heart Attack

Updated on April 7, 2020
Pamela99 profile image

After 22 years as an RN, I now write about medical issues and new medical advances. Diet, exercise, treatment, and lifestyle are important.


Exactly What is a Heart Attack

I think everyone has some idea of what a heart attack (myocardial infarction) is, but you may not know exactly what is happening physically to the body. Since heart attacks are the leading cause of death in the USA and 735,000 die annually, you may want to have a few more details.

Plaque (atherosclerosis) builds up in the arteries due to fat, cholesterol and other substances in one or more arteries of the heart, which lessens or stops blood flow. Then, an electrical abnormaity (ventricular fibrillation) can occur, which causes death of some of the heart muscle and often the individual’s death.

The heart has four chambers and an electrical system. In a normal heart the top two chambers (atriums) contract, and an electric current is sent to the bottom two chambers (ventricles) signaling them to contract. The contraction of the ventricles sends blood throughout the arteries of the body.

When ventricular fibrillation (a lethal heart rhythm) occurs, the chambers basically quiver and do not contract. If you can reach the emergency room before this occurs, your prognosis is excellent.

What is a Silent Heart Attack?

It is possible to have a silent heart attack, which is basically a small heart attack that does some damage to the heart muscle. This would most likely happen if there was a small blood clot or some plaque in a smaller artery. Particular characteristic markings will show up on an electrocardiogram (EKG) if you have a silent heart attack.

These silent heart attack symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting, indigestion or other gastrointestinal distress
  • Severe fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Pressure in the upper back
  • Lightheadedness, fainting

Often people ignore these symptoms as there could be other causes for them. If you have a few of these symptoms or even a couple, the best course of action would be to see your doctor. One hospital record review found that 16% of individuals dying of a heart attack had been hospitalized within the previous 28 days for another problem. This tells us that some of these heart attack symptoms are not being considered, even by the doctors.

Heart Attack - Dying Heart Muscle


Typical Signs of a Major Heart Attack

A major heart attack will have very noticeable symptoms. The discomfort will be very noticeable, and this is the time to call 911 and take an aspirin. If you have nitroglycerin, take it.

Arriving at an emergency room quickly increases your prognosis and saves the life of 90% of the patients. The remaining 10% of heart attack attack victims die later due to major heart muscle damage. Always err on the side of caution and call 911. Driving yourself to the hospital can put you and other people on the road at risk.

You may have one or more of these symptoms.

Symptoms of a major heart attack include:

  • Pressure, tightness, pain, and/or a squeezing sensation to your chest and/or arms
  • Pain may also be in your jaw, back or neck
  • Elephant sitting on chest sensation in a major attack
  • Indigestion, heartburn, nausea or abdominal pain.
  • Very short of breath
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Lightheadedness and sudden dizziness
  • Overwhelming sense of doom

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

It is good to be aware of the risk factors for heart disease and avoid them if at all possible. Obviously you cannot change a genetic component or age, but you can change exercise habits, your diet and get help from your doctor to quit smoking.

Smoking or living with second hand smoke

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated cholesterol or triglycerides
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Stress - in particular your response to stress
  • Age as men over 45 years and women over 55 years are at higher risk
  • Illicit drug use - specially stimulants, such as cocaine or amphetamines
  • Strong family history of heart disease
  • Autoimmune diseases - such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus

Another risk factor is metabolic syndrome. This reflects the combined risk factors of obesity, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure. Metabolic syndrome makes it twice as likely you will suffer from heart disease. The more of these risk factors you have the higher your risk of a heart attack.

Tears come from the heart and not from the brain.

-- Leonardo da Vinci

Surprising Signs of Heart Attack in Women

Symptoms of a Heart Attack Can Vary

Heart attack symptoms can vary from one person to another. The pain may be severe or absent. It may be sudden or begin mildly over days or week. Not all people who have heart attacks have the same symptoms or have the same severity of symptoms.

Women usually experience pain, but they often have more shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and their pain may be in their back or jaw pain.

Some people have recurrent chest discomfort or pain (called angina), which will occur with exercise or some type of exertion It will be relieved with rest. Angina is caused by a temporary decrease in blood flow to the heart.

If you have chest pain or pressure that is not relieved with rest, act immediately to get help. Sometimes people wait too long as they do not recognize the urgency of the situation. Please do not make that mistake.

Heart Rhythm


Treatment for Heart Disease

There are clot dissolving drugs if you come to the emergency room with a heart attack. These drugs dissolve the clot and often stop any heart damage, but they must be given closely after the heart attack begins.

Coronary angiogram and and a coronary balloon angioplasty are effective in diagnosing and treating a clot, which will prevent a heart attack. They open blockages to restore full circulation.

Heart Attack Warning Symptoms


I have an autoimmune disease, age above 55 and a family history of heart disease, although I never smoked. I ate pretty healthy and exercised, but when I went for a treadmill test I was not allowed to leave the hospital a few years ago. My EKG was severely abnormal, and the next morning I had two stents place in one of my arteries.

I never had symptoms! I did not have disease in any other arteries either. The doctors stated that they thought my disease was due to the medications I had received for systemic lupus. I probably would have had a major heart attack if this had not been discovered.

This is a serious topic as it claims so many lives in the USA and in other countries as well. It is important to see your doctor regularly, and report any symptoms to that doctor. If you are a diabetic it is doubly important.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Submit a Comment
  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    24 months ago from Sunny Florida

    Dianna, I have heard of so many people having heart attacks and not realizing what was happening. Women in particular do not always have the typical symptoms that people know. Thanks so much for your comments.

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    24 months ago

    So glad they discovered your problem before anything serious developed. We have friends who recently had heart attacks and didn't even know they were experiencing them at the time. This is an important article for all to read.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Linda, I think the fact I had no other narrowing in the rest of my arteries, so I am not too concerned. My cholesterol has been good as well.

    Thanks so much for commenting.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Flourish, I didn't actually have a heart attack as they caught the blockages in time for the stents, and I haven't had any further problems with my heart.

    It is hard for people with autoimmune diseases to sometimes differentiate between arthritic type pain and discomfort due to the heart. That was my case. Anyone with an autoimmune disease will probably have some type of discomfort for their entire life.

    Thanks so much for your comments.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Venkatachari, I thought the images would be helpful as I wanted to make the information more understandable. I sure appreciate your comments.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Genna, I surely am blessed. I hear of young people having heart too frequently, so I hope people that read this article will pay attention to any symptoms that could mean a heart attack. Thanks so much for your comments.

  • Genna East profile image

    Genna East 

    2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

    This very informative article is a must read for everyone, Pamela. One hears of younger, healthy adults who pass on from massive heart attacks for seemingly no reason at all. Thank goodness you had a stress test, and were placed in the good hands of knowledgeable physicians to thwart what could have been a major heart attack. I hope and trust that you are doing well. :-)

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Linda, I debated whether to share that information since I had no symptoms that I related to my heart, however, I have systemic lupus. Thanks for your comments.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Blogchick, I appreciate your comments about the tips and signs for heart attacks.

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 

    2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

    Thank you for sharing all of the information about a very important topic, Pamela. Your description of your own experience was interesting to read. I hope you never have problems with your heart in the future.

  • Theblogchick profile image


    2 years ago from United States

    Thank you for sharing some helpful tips about the signs and warnings of a heart attack. Your article was very informative.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Thank you so much for your cmments. The symptoms are important to remember. God bless,

  • Minnetonka Twin profile image

    Linda Rogers 

    2 years ago from Minnesota

    Hi Pamela-you did such a nice job of explaining symptoms of a heart attack. Knowing the symptoms or even the less obvious ones are key for getting checked out. Glad you figured it out in time. Blessings

  • FlourishAnyway profile image


    2 years ago from USA

    I'm so sorry to learn about your heart attack as well as your lupus. As I read the symptoms, I was wondering how people with autoimmune disorders like MS, lupus, etc. would be able to differentiate some of the signs as their unfortunate normal vs. a heart attack. I hope you are doing well and keeping your spirits up.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Venkatachari M, I am glad the article with the pictures was helpful. Thank you for your comments.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Peg, You are spot on. Following through with the cardiologist is so important, and when everything out well there is peace of mind. Thanks for commenting.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Peggy, I am so glad this article was helpful. I appreciate your comments.

  • Venkatachari M profile image

    Venkatachari M 

    2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

    Very useful information. The above images and the tips provided are a great guidance to people to be careful and act in time.

    Thanks for sharing it.

  • PegCole17 profile image

    Peg Cole 

    2 years ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

    Important symptoms to know for so many reasons. My PCP recently advised me to go to the heart specialist and have a complete workup. Thankfully, everything seems to be in working order and it's a good feeling to know there is no cause for alarm. Better to be sure if there is any doubt.

  • Peggy W profile image

    Peggy Woods 

    2 years ago from Houston, Texas

    This is so important to know. Thanks for highlighting the early signs of a heart attack. Pinning this to my health board.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Ethel, I am glad to hear your uncle is doing okay. You are right, women tend to have more unusual symptoms than men. I am glad you are aware of the symptoms, and I appreciate you sharing your experience.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Louise, I appreciate your stopping by and commenting.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Victoria, I have not had any heart problems since those stents were put in and I have a routine appt. with the cardiologist annually. Most people have symptoms, so I am a bit unusual in that regard.

    Getting help at the first sign of symptoms is the best defense to be treated. With all the healthy things you do for your family I doubt your family will have problems. Thanks.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Sherry, People do confuse the symptoms, and the main reason probably is that the vagus nerve that reaches the heart, lungs and the stomach. Doctors will rule out heart problems first in the ER, and then look for stomach problems. I appreciate your comments.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Ann, I didn't get number of heart attacks for other countries, but it does not surprise me that Britain also has a high number of heart attacks. My goal for this article was to get people to realize they should not ignore possible symptoms. Thank you so much for your comments.

  • ethel smith profile image

    Ethel Smith 

    2 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

    Very informative. I knew some of this from working as a clerk on a cardiology ward and as my brother had an heart attack aged mid 50s. Thankfully he is 68 now and doing pretty good. Years ago he would have died. Your info re your own experience is really useful. Most people do not realise that they may not have usual symptoms

  • Coffeequeeen profile image

    Louise Powles 

    2 years ago from Norfolk, England

    That was very helpful and informative to read. Thankyou.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    2 years ago from Olympia, WA

    When I lost my father back in 1969, we simply did not know what we know today. He might have been saved if information had been available. Today we have this information, which you have shared, and many potential attacks can be prevented if we are just aware. Good article, Pamela!

  • VVanNess profile image

    Victoria Van Ness 

    2 years ago from Fountain, CO

    That is so scary. What great information though. :) I hope this isn't something you're going through right now.

  • Sherry H profile image

    Sherry Haynes 

    2 years ago

    Informative article. Many people confuse heart attack and angina with heart burn due to similar chest pain symptoms. It is really important to know these early signs.

  • annart profile image

    Ann Carr 

    2 years ago from SW England

    This is such an important issue to highlight. Heart disease is prevalent in Britain too and there are far too many people who are overweight. I think some people ignore any slight symptoms because they are scared of the possibilities - I think the being scared should make them take action!

    Thanks for a clear and concise picture of the symptoms and what to do - this could indeed save someone's life, Pamela.



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