Heart attacks are often portrayed in movies and on TV as happening suddenly, with the person clutching their chest in terrible pain and collapsing to the ground. While this can sometimes happen, it’s not usually quite how a heart attack manifests.
In fact, many heart attacks involve no obvious symptoms, or symptoms that seem unrelated to your heart.
Since heart attacks are often life-threatening, it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms so you can get to the hospital as soon as possible.
Why Do Heart Attacks Happen?
Heart attacks occur when the blood flow to your heart muscle is blocked. This usually happens when one of your coronary arteries (the arteries that supply blood to your heart) becomes blocked by plaque buildup.
Plaque buildup happens over time as cholesterol and other substances in your blood harden on the walls of your arteries. This process, known as atherosclerosis, raises your blood pressure and makes it more difficult for your heart to pump blood.
As the arterial plaque builds up, it can eventually rupture (break open), causing a blood clot to form. If this clot grows large enough, it can completely block blood flow to your heart, causing a myocardial infarction—a heart attack.
What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of A Heart Attack?
The classic symptom of a heart attack is chest pain or tight pressure, which is often described as feeling like a heavy weight is pushing down on your chest.
But not everyone who goes through a heart attack will experience this symptom.
Sometimes the discomfort is felt in your jaw, neck, or back area. Other people may experience it as arm or shoulder pain or discomfort.
Other common symptoms include:
- shortness of breath
- sudden cold sweat
If you or someone around you is experiencing these symptoms, you must call for help immediately. Minutes and seconds matter when it comes to heart attacks.
If you’re unsure whether it’s a heart attack or something else, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and get checked out by a medical professional. Nearly half of all heart attacks are mistakenly believed to be something less serious, like heartburn or indigestion.
The Silent Heart Attack
Some heart attacks present with subtle, mild, or brief symptoms that may get overlooked. They get dismissed as heartburn, the flu, fatigue, or stress.
While this might not seem so bad—”how bad can it be if I didn’t even notice it?”—a silent heart attack is still a heart attack. And it can do just as much damage to your heart muscle as one that causes more obvious symptoms.
It also means that you are at a high risk of having another heart attack and other heart problems in the future.
If you’ve already had issues with your heart or if you have other risk factors for heart disease (atherosclerosis, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, family history), it’s important to be extra vigilant about any new or unusual symptoms you might experience. Call 911 immediately if you think you might have a heart attack, even if the symptoms are mild.