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Heartburn or Heart Attack? 5 Lifesaving Insights

By Toufik Haddad, MD June 07, 2023 Posted in: Heart Health

It’s always the right decision to call 911 or your health care provider if you’re having a possible heart attack. But how do you recognize a heart attack? What if you’re not sure?

How to Recognize a Heart Attack

Some heart attacks have the tell-tale symptom of crushing chest pain radiating to the left arm. While that’s a familiar symptom of heart attack, the truth is heart attacks have variable symptoms and they can be deceiving.

Knowing the more subtle signs can save your life or the life of a loved one. 

Don't Wait if You Have Symptoms

Unfortunately, people often hesitate to seek medical attention especially if they fail to recognize the importance of their symptoms. I would urge you not to ignore or wait on a symptom that is concerning or suspicious. We understand that heart attack symptoms can be subtle and confusing. In fact, the following five insights might surprise you. 

Where Does Heart Attack Pain Appear?

1.) Heart attack pain or discomfort can be located anywhere between your chin and your belly button.

Signs of a heart attack should be obvious. But unfortunately they are not. Most people are familiar with the classic heart attack symptom of crushing chest pain radiating the left arm. But that’s not the only symptom. Others include: 

  • Pain area: In between shoulder blades, chest, jaw, left arm, or upper abdomen
  • Pain types: Chest pain, pressure, discomfort, burning in the chest or like a clenched fist. 
  • Heartburn, indigestion, nausea
  • Jaw, neck or back pain or discomfort
  • Sweating 
  • Sudden onset of shortness of breath 
  • Association could be anxiety, palpitations, fatigue or feeling weak. 
  • Feeling of impending doom. 

What are the Heart Attack Symptoms in Women?

2.) Women’s symptoms can be even more subtle than men’s. 

Women can have what’s called atypical symptoms, which are the uncommon signs of a sickness. That’s why it’s often harder for women to know they’re experiencing a heart attack. Some atypical symptoms women should watch for include: 

  • Chest wall muscle pain that’s different from crushing pain.
  • Fatigue, or a lack of energy that is more than “everyday tired.” You might suddenly feel exhausted in the afternoon for no clear reason.
  • Indigestion or heartburn that feels different than symptoms you’ve felt before.
  • In between shoulder blades pain or jaw pain 
  • Excessive sweating and nausea without a clear reason. 

Pay Close Attention to Symptoms

3.) A familiar symptom that feels different this time is a reason for concern. 

Men and women alike should watch symptoms that feel different for any reason, especially if it seems to occur out of the blue without a clear trigger. Some examples include:

  • Feeling nauseous in a way that you haven’t experienced before. 
  • Jaw, back or shoulder pain that starts suddenly or isn’t caused by exertion. 
  • Heartburn that feels different or worse.
  • Suddenly being very tired. 
  • Sweating for no reason. 
  • Having symptoms similar to your previous heart attack is the number one alarm for having a heart attack again. Don’t ignore it. 

Additional Risks of a Heart Attack

4.) Risk factors should raise your suspicion. 

If you have any of the traditional risk factors for heart attack, you should pay close attention to possible heart attack symptoms. These risk factors include:

    • Nicotine use whether chewing, smoking or vaping
    • High blood pressure
    • High cholesterol
    • Diabetes
    • Overweight
    • Prior history of heart attack or heart stents 
    • Family history of heart attack, heart stents, stroke, or open heart surgery 

Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Heart Attack

5.) Simple steps you could take now to help prevent future heart attacks. 

I can’t overemphasize how much power you have to protect your heart. Things you can do starting now include: 

  • Getting your cholesterol checked as early as age 18. Waiting until you’re middle-aged or older lets decades of plaque build up in your arteries. 
  • Stopping smoking and/or vaping - it thickens the blood and increases the plaque in your blood vessels. In addition it increases the chance for early age heart attacks and strokes. 
  • Exercising and eating a healthy diet - it’s good for your overall health but especially your heart. Waking thirty minutes a day five days a week could save your heart and your life.  

If you or a loved one experiences heart attack symptoms, calling 911 gives you the best chance for a good outcome. Heart damage occurs quickly and minutes can make the difference between life and death. If you have concerns about your heart health, talk to your provider. We’re here to help. 

Toufik Haddad, MD
Toufik Haddad, MD

Toufik Haddad, MD is a Cardiologist with CHI Health.

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