Heart attack symptoms can differ between men and women, with men tending to present with the more typical symptoms we all associate with heart attacks, tight chest, painful left arm, difficulty breathing, and dizziness. Women are different, and although many of the male symptoms will be present, there are other more subtle signals they need to be aware of.
The symptoms listed below are meant to make you aware of how symptoms we often associate with other conditions, like heartburn, can actually be your body trying to warn you about your heart. Aches and pains caused by your heart, but felt in different areas of your body, like your neck and jaw, are called referred pain.
The heart shares a bundle of nerves that service our arms, chest, and upper torso, so if you feel back pain or a sore jaw, this could be your heart sounding an alarm bell, but getting its signals crossed. Of course, it could also simply be exactly what it feels like. A dodgy tooth or a strained back muscle.
That’s why it’s important to learn about all the types of referred pain and consider any symptoms you may be experiencing in the context of your current physical condition. If you’re over forty, overweight, and unfit, then back pain accompanied by, for instance, sweating and shortness of breath should send you straight in to your doctor.
It isn’t just obese and unfit over-40’s that have heart attacks though. Any person, of any age and physical condition can suffer a heart attack for a variety of reasons, so it’s best to educate yourself on the most common early warning signs.
Not only could recognizing these signs save your life, but you could also potentially save someone else’s by seeing their aches and pains for what they really are. A warning.
Shortness of breath
Trouble getting up those stairs? Have you noticed a sudden and rapid decrease in your lung capacity? Do even small exertions leave you feeling out of breath? This symptom, even experienced on its own, requires immediate examination by your doctor. Don’t put it off. Heart-related shortness of breath does not need to be accompanied by chest pain.
Dizziness or lightheadedness coupled with chest pain and shortness of breath may indicate a decrease in blood volume and a drop in blood pressure, which means a heart attack could be on the way.
Feeling tired and listless
A feeling of fatigue will often accompany one or more of these symptoms, particularly in women. They can experience fatigue a month before having a heart attack. The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute warn that this sign is especially prominent in women.
Heartburn, nausea, and indigestion
It could be that spicy curry you had for lunch or it could be something far more serious. Gastric symptoms like a queasy stomach, vomiting, or belching can develop when the heart and other areas of the body aren’t receiving enough blood supply. You can interpret this as acid reflux or heartburn, so it’s important to reach out to your doctor, especially if you’re having other heart related symptoms.
Pressure or feeling constricted, tightness
The most common and well know signal of an impending heart attack. These feelings will usually come in waves and will dissipate after a few minutes. The American Heart Association describes this symptom as “uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center of your chest”. This symptom can be accompanied by an increased feeling of stress and anxiety. Don’t ignore this symptom. Consult your doctor as soon as possible.
Sweating is the body’s mechanism for cooling us down and is totally normal. In some instances, we sweat more, from excessive heat, exercise and in the case of women, the onset of menopause can trigger sweating. A heart attack triggers your nervous system, which in turn activates a “fight or flight” response that puts you in survival mode and could lead to sweating. ‘Cold sweats’ and ‘night sweats’ without the presence of fever should be taken seriously.
Earlier we described how confused nerves can send out heart-related pain signals to other areas of your body. These can occur in places other than the chest, like the back, shoulders, arms, neck, or jaw. Women are more likely to experience pain in the neck, jaw, and back. Again, referred pain should be considered alongside the presence of other symptoms. A useful tip for back pain is the inability to localize the origin, in other words, there isn’t a specific spot you can point at for the pain.
Palpitations or irregular heartbeat
When the heart is starved of blood, it can lead to the sensation of heart palpitations or a racing heart. This is an unmistakable signal from your heart that something is amiss. If you feel like you’re having heart palpitations, make sure you contact your doctor right away, even in the absence of any other symptoms.