How a Heart Attack Feels Like

I hope you’ll get diagnosed and treated long before heart disease leads to a heart attack, but you should know the warning signs just in case. Unlike in the movies, where a person having a heart attack gropes his chest (and in the movies, unlike reality, it’s almost always a man) and falls to the floor, the symptoms of a reallife heart attack are often more subtle.

They differ between men and women and from person to person. Generally, men will report the following:

  • Pain or discomfort in the chest that radiates to the shoulder or arms, to the upper back near the shoulder blades, or to the neck or jaw.
  • Uncomfortable pressure, tightness, fullness, or ache at the center of the chest.
  • Shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, or dizziness.

Women, on the other hand, usually report the following:

  • Pain in both arms or shoulders.
  • Chest cramping or dull pain between the breasts.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Feeling of indigestion.
  • Lower abdominal pain.
  • Severe fatigue (the least specific symptom, usually not caused by a heart attack).

If you or someone around you experiences the heart attack warning signs previously listed, follow these three simple steps:

  1. Call 911. You may be reluctant to call for help, especially if you’re not sure whether your discomfort is caused by a heart attack or indigestion, but doing so will get you better—and safer—treatment. Calling for an ambulance is like bringing an emergency room to you.

Emergency medical personnel can restart your heart if it stops beating. They can give you oxygen to help you breathe and aspirin and other treatments to prevent further blood clots. Another good reason for emergency transport is quicker treatment once you get to the hospital.

Heart attack victims who arrive by ambulance receive appropriate treatment sooner than those who arrive by car. If, for some reason, you have a family member or friend drive you to the hospital, tell the person at the desk, “I think I’m having a heart attack” in no uncertain terms.

Don’t be wishy-washy about it. Sitting in the waiting room because you told the desk clerk that it wasn’t an emergency won’t do you any good. Whatever you do, don’t drive yourself to the hospital.

  1. Chew a regular-strength aspirin. Aspirin “poisons” platelets so that they do not form clots well. Some people who use aspirin occasionally may notice that they bleed longer from small cuts or may bruise more easily if they have taken aspirin recently.

This minor annoyance can be a lifesaver, however, when platelets threaten to clump inside the coronary artery and block blood flow to the heart. If you can’t chew an aspirin, mash it up in a glass of water and drink it down. It’s important not to take an aspirin whole; it can take too long for the body to break it down and absorb it.

  1. Call a friend or family member. If you’re alone, immediately call someone and tell him or her what’s going on.

The average person waits two hours or more after the onset of heart attack symptoms to call for help, and one in four people waits more than five hours. It’s not ignorance—it takes the average doctor who is having a heart attack two hours, too.

Most people wait because they aren’t sure if they’re really having a heart attack and can’t decide whether to seek medical care. It’s easy to write off heart attack symptoms as something else. Chest pain can arise from stress- or activity-related angina.

That hot, heavy feeling in the chest could be heartburn or gas. An ache in the left arm or jaw could be arthritis or the aftermath of snow shoveling. Unfortunately, there’s no simple rule of thumb that separates a heart attack from a false alarm.

And you’ll probably have a hard time being objective about it, which is why it’s so important to let a professional make an informed and unbiased judgment. Another deterrent is more personal. People don’t want to look foolish if it’s a false alarm or don’t want to worry or bother others.

Keep in mind : it’s much easier to live with embarrassment than with a damaged heart. So, if you feel like you’re having a heart attack and the symptoms last more than a few minutes, call 911 (or your local emergency number) sooner rather than later.

Of course you don’t want to think that you’ll have a heart attack. But with about a million Americans having one each year, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Here are some additional steps you can take to make sure you get the best care possible if you have a heart attack:

  • Make packages that include a list of medications you’re taking and those you are allergic to, as well as the name(s) of an emergency contact. Keep a package near the phone at home and work and another in your car. If you know you have heart disease, also include instructions or a letter from your doctor and a copy of your latest electrocardiogram (EKG).
  • Check your house or apartment building to make sure it has a number that’s clearly visible from the street.
  • Think through what you would do if you had heart attack symptoms at home, at work, or somewhere else.
  • Decide who would take care of children, an ailing spouse or parent, or anyone else you usually care for. In a pinch, emergency medical personnel will try to reach a friend or relative (or the police, if necessary) to arrange emergency care for your dependents.
  • Go over with your family and friends the warning signs of a heart attack and the importance of quickly calling 911 if those signs last for more than a few minutes.