By Marie Suszynski, Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
For many people who have had a heart attack, the experience is similar to the classic variety shown in movies -- a crushing pain in the chest that causes you to buckle over. But for many others, it's much different.
Heart attack symptoms can range from sudden, severe chest pain to dull chest pain, arm pain, and even jaw and tooth pain. People who have experienced a heart attack often say they instinctively knew something was very wrong.
"Everyone I've met who has had a heart attack says it's different from anything they experienced before," says Malissa Wood, MD, co-director of the Corrigan Women's Heart Health Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center in Boston.
Learn what a heart attack feels like and what to do if you think you're having one.
Heart Attack Symptoms
No two heart attacks are the same. Heart attacks can come on with no warning, or symptoms can begin slowly and mildly. Someone who has had more than one heart attack can have different symptoms with each one.
Also, keep in mind that men and women tend to experience heart attacks differently. "Men are much more likely to have the feeling of an elephant sitting on their chest," Dr. Wood says. A heart attack in women is more likely to cause shortness of breath, fatigue, jaw pain, neck pain, and arm pain.
However, a heart attack in women can also look very much like a classic heart attack, and men can have symptoms that aren't typical, so it's important to watch out for all of these heart attack signs:
Chest pain -- this could be a mild discomfort that lasts or goes away and comes back, or it can feel like a lot of pressure, squeezing, fullness, or outright pain.
Shortness of breath -- you may notice that it's hard to breathe before you have pain or pressure, or it may begin around the same time the pain comes on.
Heart palpitations (racing or irregular heartbeats)
Arm discomfort in one or both arms
Jaw or tooth pain
Back or stomach pain
Breaking out in a sweat
A sense of impending doom -- patients often tell doctors that they had a sense that something was seriously wrong.
Just knowing these warning signs can save your life. It did for Marjorie Nackenhorst of Indianapolis, who had a heart attack five years ago at the age of 86.
Nackenhorst had been visiting a relative in the hospital when she saw a display that listed the signs of a heart attack. A few weeks later, she woke up in the middle of the night and felt nauseated, had trouble catching her breath, and had a strange feeling in her left arm. "I just didn't feel right," she says.
Because she had memorized the symptoms in the display at the hospital, Nackenhorst told her daughter, "Take me to the hospital, I'm having a heart attack." When she got there, she learned that she was, in fact, having a heart attack.
What Makes Heart Attack Symptoms Unique
The key to telling the difference between chest pain from another cause, such as acid reflux or indigestion, and chest pain from a heart attack is to look at the setting and associated symptoms, Wood says.
Chest pain from reflux or indigestion gets better when you take an antacid or by drinking milk or water. Pain from a heart attack won't go away with those measures. Also, symptoms like sweatiness, nausea, heart palpitations, or breathlessness usually do not accompany reflux or indigestion, Wood says.
Related: When You Witness a Heart Attack
Another key sign of a heart attack is if pain repeatedly comes on with activity, such as tightness in your chest when you walk up the stairs, she says.
Ron Andreassen, a television producer and director from Belmont Shores, Calif., now knows the difference between chest pain from reflux and chest pain from a heart attack. One night last year, he woke up around midnight thinking he had heartburn and took an antacid, but the pain didn't go away.
A couple of hours later, the pain in the center of his chest started feeling very sharp. An hour later, he felt another severe sharp pain in the upper, left part of his back; then his arm went numb, and he broke out into a cold sweat.
"I woke my wife, and believe it or not, we went online," Andreassen says. When they read that all of his symptoms pointed to a heart attack, they called 911. He soon learned that he had two 90 percent blockages in his coronary arteries, which bring fresh blood and oxygen to the heart muscle. Without this oxygenated blood getting through, the parts of his heart muscle supplied by these two arteries were dying.
Six months later, after being treated with stents (tubes that keep clogged arteries open), his doctors told him he was so healthy he could climb Mt. Everest if he wanted to. "I dodged the widow-maker," Andreassen says.
What To Do If You Feel Symptoms
If you think you're having a heart attack, don't delay â�� call 911 immediately. Doctors prefer that people call 911 instead of driving to the hospital because they can be treated in the ambulance, Wood says. If your heart stops beating, the emergency workers have the tools to get it beating again.
Related: Preventing Heart Atacks in Men
Of the 70,000 Canadians who have a heart attack every year, almost 25 percent die from the cardiac event. About half of those who die from a heart attack do so within an hour of feeling symptoms. Being aware of the symptoms of a heart attack and getting treated within an hour of your first symptom can save your life.
-Canadian statistics via Heart and Stroke Foundation