A heart attack happens when one or more of your coronary arteries becomes blocked, preventing necessary blood flow and oxygen from getting to your heart muscle.

Nearly half of those who die suddenly from heart problems die outside of a hospital without getting the treatment that could have saved their lives. That’s why it’s so important to be able to recognize early signs of a heart attack, so you can get care quickly to restore blood flow.

If you or a loved one is experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath or any other warning sign of a heart attack, it’s important to act fast by calling 911 for medical care.

Below is an overview of the heart attack symptoms you need to know, as well as more detailed information on the types of heart attacks and why they happen.

Common signs and symptoms of a heart attack

Not everyone will experience the exact same heart attack symptoms. And it’s important to know that some heart attack symptoms are similar to those of other conditions like angina.

If you or a loved one are experiencing anything unusual, try to stay calm, don’t ignore what you’re feeling and look for any of the following:

  • Chest pain, chest discomfort or chest pressure
  • Jaw, neck, arm, shoulder or back pain
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest pain
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Heavy sweating
  • Uncomfortable awareness of your heartbeat
  • High anxiety

What does a heart attack feel like?

Some of the sensations you may feel during a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain that can range from mild to severe, or an uncomfortable pressure, tightness, squeezing or heaviness in your chest. The discomfort can last more than a few minutes at a time and sometimes goes away for a short time but returns later.
  • Pain or a sensation of being squeezed that starts in the upper back.
  • Pain that starts from your left shoulder and arm, and goes into other areas such as your back, jaw, neck or right arm.
  • Pain that feels like heartburn or indigestion.

Silent heart attack symptoms

When someone has a silent heart attack, they have none of the common heart attack symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath. Instead, they may feel like they have the flu, indigestion or a pulled muscle in their chest or upper back.

Heart attack symptoms in women vs. men

Women are more likely than men to have silent heart attacks and heart attacks without chest pain. Heart attacks are also more likely to start when a woman is at rest or experiencing mental stress.

That means it’s especially important for women to watch out for symptoms like shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, nausea or vomiting, or pain in the jaw, arms or back.

Also, we now know that young women are particularly prone to a type of heart event called a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), which we talk about in more depth below.

What to do when you’re having a heart attack (or think you might be having one)

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Chew one adult-strength (or 2-4 low dose) aspirin to help keep your blood from clotting.
  • Stay on the phone with the emergency operator as you wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself (or your loved one) to the hospital.

If you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, don’t ignore your symptoms. Call for help anyway. If you are having a heart attack, the sooner you get to the hospital, the sooner your care team can work to restore blood flow and reduce further heart damage.

Types of heart attacks

The scientific term for a heart attack is myocardial infarction or MI for short. There are different kinds of heart attacks, and the severity, diagnosis and treatment for each may be different.

What all heart attacks have in common is that something is preventing oxygen-containing, nutrient-rich blood from getting to the heart muscle. The amount of damage to the heart will depend on the type of heart attack, the severity of blockage and the time it took to get treated.

Here’s what you need to know about the types of heart attacks:

STEMI

A STEMI heart attack is known as a “classic” or massive heart attack. But what is a STEMI heart attack exactly? STEMI stands for ST-elevation myocardial infarction. This type of heart attack is caused by a complete blockage in one of the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle.

A STEMI is usually associated with coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is caused by plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the heart and other parts of the body. Plaque is made up of deposits of cholesterol and other substances. Over time, it can build up and narrow the arteries, obstructing blood flow. This is where a major blockage can occur suddenly, resulting in a massive heart attack

NSTEMI

NSTEMI stands for Non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction. This type of heart attack occurs when an artery is partially blocked, severely reducing blood flow to the heart.

Like a STEMI heart attack, an NSTEMI heart attack is usually caused by plaque buildup. However, the reduction in blood flow is less sudden or severe. So, an NSTEMI is typically less damaging to the heart.

Spontaneous coronary artery dissection

SCAD is a type of heart attack that happens when the inner lining of a coronary artery tears for no clear reason, slowing or blocking blood flow down the artery.

SCAD can occur in otherwise healthy people who do not have the typical risk factors of heart disease. And according to an article in Clinical Cardiology , about 90% of SCADs happen to women between the age of 30 and 60.

Coronary artery spasm

A coronary artery spasm (CAS) is a brief, sudden narrowing of a coronary artery that reduces or completely blocks blood flow. A CAS can occasionally lead to a heart attack if the spasm is complete and long-lasting.

CAS is sometimes referred to as vasospastic or variant angina, and often happens when a person is at rest or asleep.

Additionally, coronary artery spasms often happen to people without common risk factors like high blood pressure or high cholesterol. However, they’re more common in smokers. So, quitting smoking can reduce your risk of CAS.

Know your heart care options

You can’t predict if a heart attack will happen. But knowing where you can get the right heart care is one thing you can do. Our nationally recognized cardiac centers include:

  • Regions Hospital Heart Center in St. Paul, MN, is consistently recognized as one of the nation’s top cardiac centers. You’ll get the highest level of care in every situation, starting with emergency treatment all the way through the recovery process.
  • Park Nicollet Heart and Vascular Center, located in St. Louis Park, MN, is nationally recognized for offering outstanding, responsive care for heart attacks and other cardiac conditions. This center is accredited as a Mission: Lifeline® Heart Attack Receiving Center by the American Heart Association, so you can expect first-rate treatment, especially in time-sensitive situations.
  • Cardiac rehabilitation services are offered across the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin. Recovering from a heart attack takes time, but you don’t have to go through it alone. We offer personalized cardiac rehabilitation at seven convenient locations, so it’s easy to get the support you – and your heart – need.

Get the heart care you need, when you need it

Each year about 805,000 Americans have a heart attack, and about 655,000 die of heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This means heart disease is responsible for one in every four deaths, making it the leading cause of death for both men and women.

Remember, if you think you’re having a heart attack:

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Chew one adult-strength (or 2-4 low dose) aspirin to help keep your blood from clotting.
  • Stay on the phone with the emergency operator as you wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself to the hospital.

A heart attack can be a scary experience. But remember that we’re here for you, and comprehensive heart care and recovery options are never far away.