What Does a Heart Attack Really Feel Like?
An intense, squeezing chest pain isn’t what most people feel when they’re having a heart attack. A cardiologist explains the more common, yet more subtle symptoms.
You know what a heart attack is supposed to feel like. It’s that sudden, intense, squeezing chest pain, like an elephant sitting on your chest. Right?
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That’s certainly the classic presentation, says cardiologist Venu Menon, MD. But that’s not what most heart attack patients actually experience, he says.
“A minority of patients have those classical symptoms,” says Dr. Menon. “Many others have symptoms that are more subtle and can be confused with other conditions.”
So, what does a heart attack really feel like? According to Dr. Menon, patients most often report:
Heartburn, breathlessness and other subtle symptoms aren’t always heart attacks. How can you tell a minor ailment from a heart attack?
“It’s challenging,” admits Dr. Menon. “And that’s a big reason why people don’t get to the doctor sooner when they’re having a heart attack.”
In general, call 911 if:
It will take a clinical evaluation along with blood tests and an electrocardiogram (EKG) to definitively diagnose a heart attack, says Dr. Menon.
If you might be having heart attack symptoms, call 911 for an ambulance to take you to be evaluated. Don’t drive yourself or have a friend drive you to the emergency room.
“About one in 300 people having heart attack symptoms end up developing a life-threatening arrhythmia on the way to the hospital,” says Dr. Menon. “If you’re in an ambulance, the emergency medical team will have you connected to an EKG and will be able to begin treatment right away.”
Not all chest pain is a heart attack symptom. Pain is unlikely to be heart-related when it:
The best way to guard yourself from a heart attack is to eat a healthy diet, do regular aerobic activity, avoid smoking, manage diabetes if you have it, have regular checkups with your primary care provider, and know and control your cholesterol levels, says Dr. Menon.
If you notice a sudden change in your ability to perform physical activity, get to a doctor right away.