Locations:
Search IconSearch

What Does a Heart Attack Feel Like?

Symptoms may be mild, but don’t be fooled — any heart attack is serious

Person with chest pain and hard to breathe with heart and heartbeat in background.

Drama surrounds a Hollywood heart attack. The doomed character on screen typically clutches at their chest as pain paints their face. Then, they stagger and collapse in a twisted heap. (End scene.)

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

But in real life, that’s not what most people typically experience during a myocardial infarction (aka, heart attack). Symptoms tend to be far more subtle. In some cases, in fact, people might not even realize their ticker is in trouble.

So, what are the signs of a heart attack? Let’s find out from cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD.

Signs of a heart attack

YouTube video player

So, what does a heart attack really feel like? People most often report:

  • Chest pressure or tightness. Imagine the feeling of someone sitting on your chest. That’s close to the sensation brought by a heart attack. “It can feel very oppressive,” says Dr. Cho.
  • Heartburn-like discomfort. It’s quite common for heart attacks to feel like acid reflux. In fact, the symptoms can be nearly identical. (Learn how to tell the difference between a heart attack and heartburn.)
  • Shortness of breath. Some heart attacks don’t cause pain at all. These “silent heart attacks” are most common in people with diabetes and older adults.
  • Pain on the left side. Signs of a heart attack could include pain radiating up to the left side of your jaw or down your left arm. Some people complain of a backache, too.
  • Fatigue. This symptom is most common in older people and can be misdiagnosed as a flu-like illness.
  • Nausea and sweating. While these symptoms can come with heavy chest pain, they also can occur by themselves, especially in women or people assigned female at birth (AFAB).

Can heart attacks go unnoticed?

Some people only learn they’ve had a heart attack following a medical checkup that takes place weeks or even months after the cardiac event.

How could someone not know, you ask? Well, not all heart attacks are equal when it comes to bringing the hurt. “Mild” heart attacks can bring symptoms that mimic indigestion or general tiredness — feelings that might not set off alarms in your head.

Plus, nobody wants to believe that they’re having a heart attack. People often ignore their symptoms. “Denial is real when it comes to heart attacks,” states Dr. Cho. “You want to wish it away.”

It takes a clinical evaluation along with blood tests and an electrocardiogram (EKG) to definitively diagnose a heart attack.

Can symptoms differ between men and women?

For the most part, men and women experience similar heart attack symptoms. But about one-third of women (and people AFAB) experience different symptoms from men (and people assigned male at birth).

Women and people AFAB are more likely to experience:

  • Shortness of breath, fatigue and insomnia that started before the heart attack.
  • Pain in their back, shoulders, neck, arms or abdomen.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

Women and people AFAB are less likely to experience:

  • Chest pain, particularly in the center of their chest.
  • Discomfort that feels like indigestion.

Advertisement

What a heart attack doesn’t feel like

Not all chest pain is a heart attack symptom, clarifies Dr. Cho. Pain is unlikely to be heart-related when it:

  • Is momentary, lasting only for a few seconds.
  • Feels like a pricking sensation.
  • Is in a small, well-localized area of your chest.
  • Gets better or worse with breathing or positional changes.
  • Can be reproduced when you press on your chest or move your arm.
  • Radiates below your abdomen and into your legs.

When to call 911 for a heart attack

Given the sometimes-subtle symptoms, it can be hard to know what’s a heart attack and what’s not. The best rule? If there’s any sense that what’s happening could be a heart attack, seek help immediately.

Any heart attack — even a minor one — can damage your heart muscle. Early treatment can minimize that damage.

“Every minute truly counts with a heart attack,” stresses Dr. Cho. “If you feel like something’s wrong, get seen. Don’t ignore chest pressure, shortness of breath or nausea that lasts for more than 10 minutes and seems to be getting worse. Listen to your body.”

In general, call 911 if:

  • Symptoms occur suddenly and persist for more than 10 minutes.
  • Shortness of breath and/or chest discomfort occurs while you’re at rest.
  • You develop symptoms and are a middle-aged or older adult with risk factors such as past or present smoking; diabetes; or a family history of heart disease. Younger women who smoke or have diabetes, hypertension or ovarian dysfunction also are more vulnerable.

And it is important to call 911 for an ambulance. The reason? About 1 in 300 people having heart attack symptoms end up developing a life-threatening arrhythmia on the way to the hospital. If it happens in the ambulance, treatment can begin immediately.

Heart attack prevention

If you’ve read this far, you’re obviously concerned about the possibility of having a heart attack. Now the good news: You can take proactive steps to prevent a heart attack from ever happening.

“Even if you have the world’s worst family history, heart disease and heart attacks are largely preventable,” clarifies Dr. Cho. “You do that by controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, managing your weight and never smoking.”

But if you’re among the more than 600,000 people a year in the United States who have their first heart attack, act swiftly to get treatment. “Getting seen right away can save your life,” emphasizes Dr. Cho. “Be proactive. Don’t wait if you have symptoms.”

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Bowl of artificial sweetener with a spoonful
June 7, 2024/Heart Health
Eating Foods With Xylitol Can Be a Risk to Your Heart

Xylitol in processed food can increase risk of heart attack and stroke — but there’s no danger in xylitol in oral care products

Person standing in kitchen holding glass of water in one hand and medication in the other
May 31, 2024/Heart Health
How To Get Rid of Chest Pain at Home

If your provider has ruled out a serious cause, you can treat chest pain at home with antacids, inhalers or anti-inflammatory medications

Healthcare provider listening to a patient's heart with stethoscope in exam room
Is Joint Pain Linked to Heart Disease?

Research shows a strong association between rheumatoid arthritis and heart issues

Older couple talk while leisurely walk across a bridge
February 29, 2024/Heart Health
Can You Exercise After a Heart Attack?

Absolutely! In fact, in many ways, exercise is key to recovery

Person having a heart attack in background, close up of hand calling 911 on cell phone in foreground
February 28, 2024/Heart Health
Can You Stop a Heart Attack Once It Starts?

There’s no way to stop it once a heart attack is happening, but the most important thing you can do is to call for help

healthcare provider speaking with older female in office
February 6, 2024/Women's Health
How Estrogen Supports Heart Health

Your natural estrogen levels support a healthy heart by improving your cholesterol, increasing blood flow and reducing free radicals

person holding hands to upper chest
January 26, 2024/Heart Health
How To Tell the Difference Between a Heart Attack and a Panic Attack

To help determine what you’re experiencing, focus on how the pain feels, the location of the pain, when it started and how long it lasts

Doctor listens to patient's heart during an office appointment.
April 24, 2023/Heart Health
Early Signs of a Heart Attack To Take Seriously

Subtle heart attack warning signs include pressure, cold sweats and fatigue

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims

Ad