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This is What a Heart Attack May Feel Like

In real life, heart attack symptoms can be more subtle than what we see in movies.

Hollywood may have you believe that it’s very obvious when someone has a heart attack. After all, in movies and on television, characters often clutch their chests as they experience sudden and excruciating pain. But in real life, a heart attack and its associated symptoms may not be that dramatic.

Real-Life Signs of a Heart Attack

According to Dr. Caleb Thompson, an Interventional Cardiologist at Dignity Health Medical Group - Bakersfield, heart attack symptoms may be severe, but they also could be subtle. In rare cases, a person may not even realize they’re having a heart attack. Here are symptoms to look out for:

  • Chest pressure or tightness. Some people describe this feeling as if an elephant is sitting on their chest.
  • Pain on the left side of the body. You may experience pain in your chest that radiates down your left arm or into the left side of your jaw. You may also have pain in your neck, shoulder, abdomen or back.
  • Heartburn or indigestion-like symptoms. “It is possible for heart attack symptoms to be similar to those of heartburn or acid reflux,” says Dr. Thompson. “If your pain and discomfort are accompanied by sweating or shortness of breath, or if they persist after taking a heartburn remedy, get medical attention right away.”
  • Shortness of breath. Some people may only experience shortness of breath without any real chest pain or tightness. This makes it difficult to tell if it’s a heart attack or if the shortness of breath is caused by another condition, but it should not be ignored.
  • Fatigue, nausea and sweating. These symptoms are often attributed to something else, especially if they are not accompanied by chest pain. Dr. Thompson adds that women, who are less likely to have traditional symptoms of a heart attack such as crushing chest pain, are more likely to experience these subtle symptoms.

What should you do if you have any of these symptoms?

If you have any of these potential heart attack symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention right away. Do not drive yourself to the hospital. Even if you think you feel well enough to drive,  your symptoms may get worse on the way. Instead, call 911 or have someone drive you to the emergency room immediately.

 “Any heart attack, no matter how minor, may cause damage to the heart so it is important not to ignore symptoms. Getting treatment as soon as possible once a heart attack starts is your best chance of minimizing any damage to the heart muscle and making a full recovery,” says Dr. Thompson.


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Date Last Reviewed: December 19, 2023

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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