What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Considering that heart attacks are the leading cause of death in Australia, it’s important you know what the symptoms are so it can be picked up early. Although it can be a dramatic event, many patients ignore their symptoms for a long time because it isn’t severe enough – sometimes leaving it too late.

What is a heart attack?

Heart attacks are the result of an interruption to the blood supply to the heart muscle. If the muscle is still receiving some blood – but just not quite enough – it’s called ischaemia. If the blood supply is completely interrupted and no blood is getting through, the muscle starts to die – called infarction.

What do the symptoms feel like?

Symptoms can be different in different people, particularly between men and women. Although often people think a heart attack involves severe chest pain, it can feel quite different in different people.

  • Central chest pressure or heaviness (angina)
    • can also be felt as a squeezing sensation or a fullness – people often hold a fist to their chest to describe the sensation
  • Chest pain
    • not a mandatory symptom – it can be an unusual discomfort to describe
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnoea)
    • this is not always combined with chest pain – sometimes shortness of breath alone is the sign
  • Pain in the left shoulder or in the left side of the neck or the jaw
    • although the left is more common, the pain maybe in both sides, or across the back
  • Upper central abdominal pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
    • this is more commonly seen in women
  • Sweating
    • sweating together with chest discomfort is a concerning sign for heart problems

It is often said that men feel more ‘typical’ symptoms, such as chest pain, and women may have more ‘atypical’ symptoms, such as nausea or shortness of breath.

Understand the pattern

Your heart is under more stress when you are exercising, so the occurrence of symptoms while doing physical activity is particularly important. It’s very useful for us if you keep a record of when your symptoms occur, and if you have noticed any particular associations, such as food or exercise. If required, your doctor can organise further testing.

If you are having an episode of pain that isn’t resolving after even a few minutes, the safest thing is to call an ambulance. Importantly, don’t take a risk and make your own way to a hospital – something can happen while you are driving and make things worse. If the pain does resolve, then don’t ignore it – try and understand a pattern using these questions, seek medical attention so that the symptoms can be investigated.

Read more at the Heart Foundation.

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