“It was like an elephant sitting on my chest.”
“It hit me like a ton of bricks.”
For some heart attack patients, their symptoms come on hard and fast. Intense chest pressure. Discomfort in their left arm. Shortness of breath. Sweating. Nausea. But for every patient who feels the classic signs of a heart attack, there’s another who experiences totally different — and sometimes quieter — symptoms.
You may not feel severe discomfort.
First things first: Having a heart attack doesn’t automatically mean you’ll feel chest-clutching pain. Chest pressure you might even rate as a 2 or 3 out of 10, could be a sign of a heart attack if it persists.
“It’s easy to overlook chest pressure when it’s low-grade. But you don’t have to be doubled over in pain. In fact, I’d say most heart attacks aren’t like that,” says Raj Kattar, MD, a cardiologist with ProMedica Physicians.
Keep an eye on sudden symptoms.
So how can you tell if subtle signs could mean something more? If you suddenly feel one of the following symptoms — especially if it comes along with one or more of the classic heart attack symptoms — you should get medical help right away.
People usually think acid reflux when they feel heartburn. But if it comes on suddenly, is worse than usual and your normal remedies such as antacids don’t work after a few minutes, it could be a sign of a heart attack, especially if you’re also short of breath and sweaty.
Discomfort in areas of the body between the chest and belly is often dismissed as indigestion, and that’s a likely cause. However, heart attacks in various areas of the heart can cause indigestion-like symptoms. If you have persistent nausea, vomiting or burping that is accompanied by shortness of breath and sweating, it could be signaling a heart problem.
Pain in the Jaw or Between the Shoulder Blades
Pain that appears out of the blue in one of these areas, especially if it’s very strong or severe, could have a cardiac cause.
Shortness of Breath
If you suddenly become short of breath for no reason, take note. On its own or with sweatiness, intense shortness of breath can be an atypical presentation of a heart attack. Doctors see it often in elderly patients who sometimes don’t report significant chest pain.
“If you’re not sure if your mild issue needs urgent attention, a good rule of thumb is to try your normal remedies to see if that helps reduce your discomfort. But if the feeling starts to last 20 or 30 minutes, or you start getting additional symptoms, it’s time to get help,” explains Dr. Kattar.
Tell someone how you’re feeling.
Make sure to tell someone if you’re feeling a new, sudden symptom. Many mild heart attack patients don’t go to the hospital until a family member urges them to get help. They can also call 911 for you if needed.
It’s important to get medical help right away, since doctors need to address the problem quickly to reduce permanent heart damage. If you wait, it could lead to issues like congestive heart failure, disability from shortness of breath or dangerous complications down the road.
“A false alarm once in a while is better than missing a heart attack,” says Dr. Kattar. “Sometimes it is just indigestion. But missing a heart attack could have long-term consequences, so I think you’re better off seeking medical attention.”
To learn more about heart care at ProMedica, visit ProMedica.org/heart.