What Does a Heart Attack Feel Like?

Every 40 seconds, someone in the US suffers a heart attack, which is about 805,000 people annually. On top of that, half of all Americans have at least one of the three key risk factors for heart disease. 

But what does a heart attack really feel like? Are they all like what you see on TV, with someone clutching their chest and collapsing? Read on to learn more about the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.

What Is a Heart Attack?

What doctors call a myocardial infarction or heart attack occurs when part of the heart muscle doesn’t receive enough oxygen. This happens because the heart is not receiving enough blood. Sometimes, that portion of the heart receives no blood at all. 

Without blood flow, the heart muscle begins to die, and the longer the tissue is without oxygen, the more damage mounts. 

The leading cause of heart attacks is coronary artery disease (CAD), where waxy plaque builds up inside one or more blood vessels leading to the heart. This plaque is made up of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, fats, and other inflammatory products. 

When a head plaque explodes, the blood in the vessel forms a clot, which, if large enough, can disrupt blood flow through that vessel. Without blood flow to the heart, the muscle is starved of oxygen. If it goes on too long, the patient is at risk of heart failure and other complications.

Less commonly, a heart attack might be due to a severe spasm or sudden coronary artery contraction, which can stop blood flow to the heart muscle. Sometimes this happens if someone is struck hard in the chest.

Men and Women Experience Different Symptoms

Men and women may not experience the same symptoms that signal a heart attack. Both can experience chest pain and other symptoms that come and go, sometimes returning hours later. Symptoms usually last for more than 10 minutes.

Below are symptoms that may differ.

Symptoms in Men

  • Shortness of breath developing before other symptoms, present while sitting still or in light activity
  • Sudden cold sweat
  • Back pain that often moves up the neck
  • Arm pain, typically in the left but can be in the right or both arms
  • Symptoms come on quickly

Symptoms in Women

  • A feeling of pressure or tightness of the chest, rather than the heavy, crushing weight reported by men
  • Lightheadedness, faintness, and weakness
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen like heartburn or indigestion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Symptoms come on gradually

However, both men and women can have similar or identical symptoms signaling a heart attack. Other symptoms besides those listed above include:

  • Unusual fatigue, sometimes days before the attack
  • Feeling like you have the flu
  • Pain in the throat, jaw, or teeth without chest pain
  • Rapid heart rate or rapid breathing
  • Low blood pressure

People over 75 may have chest pain accompanied by shortness of breath, fainting, delirium, or an unexplained fall. 

Emergency medicine treats more than just trauma to the body. Read more about our emergency services here.

Risk Factors for Heart Attack

Your health condition, lifestyle, age, and family history are all elements that determine your risk for heart attack and heart disease

The three key risk factors mentioned in the introduction are:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking 

Other risk factors include diabetes, LDL over 130 mg/dl, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and a family history of heart disease. Also, heart attacks tend to affect men more over the age of 45, while women tend to have heart attacks after 55 or menopause.

Types of Heart Attacks

Heart attacks can be mild, massive, and silent. 

A mild heart attack is often called a Non-ST Segment Elevations Myocardial infarction (NSTEMI). It causes less damage than the next type. Symptoms include:

  • Pressure-like chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea  
  • Cold sweats 
  • Pain in the neck, jaw, or arms

A massive heart attack is often called an ST-Elevated Myocardial Infarction (STEMI), and you suffer significant heart muscle damage.

A silent heart attack has mild or no symptoms. About 25% of all heart attacks in the US are silent. The symptoms, when present, are subtle and include:

  • Fatigue 
  • Feeling as though you have the flu
  • Indigestion 
  • Feeling like you have a pulled back or chest muscle
  • Pain only in the jaw but not the chest

A silent heart attack might resolve on its own if the clot blocking the vessel dissolves or is dislodged and absorbed into the body. However, you can still have heart damage, although it may not be discovered for months or years after the attack.

Should you visit an emergency room or urgent care facility? What is the difference? Read more here.

What To Do

Never, ever hesitate to call 911 for help. A suspected heart attack is a medical emergency. It’s better safe than sorry (or feeling embarrassed)!

DO NOT DRIVE YOURSELF TO THE HOSPITAL IF YOU ARE HAVING A HEART ATTACK. You could cause an accident on the way to the hospital. The sooner you get treatment, the less damage your heart sustains. 

Once you are getting treatment, a healthcare professional can run more tests to see whether or not a heart attack is happening and decide the best treatment on the spot. If the heart attack is severe enough, treatment might include CPR or electrical shock (defibrillation) to start the heart pumping again.


Muscle tissue damage can impair the heart’s rhythms and ability to pump blood to the body. One heart attack increases the risk of another. You are also at higher risk for stroke, kidney disorders, and peripheral artery disease (PAD).

To reduce the chance of future heart attacks and other complications, you can change your level of physical activity under the guidance of your doctor. You can change your lifestyle by maintaining a healthy diet, managing stress, and taking prescribed medication.

It is also recommended to stop smoking. It’s challenging, but worth the years you add to your life. 

You may also receive counseling to help you reduce your stress and improve your mental health.

Wrapping Up

A heart attack is serious. You should seek immediate medical attention to give you the best chance of reducing damage to your heart.

At Family First ER, we have experienced medical staff who provide high-quality emergency care for people who may be having a heart attack.