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Sure Signs You're Having a Heart Attack, According to Patients

Here are the symptoms to look out for, as told by the patients who lived through them.
FACT CHECKED BY Checkmark Alek Korab
Young woman feeling sick and holding her chest in pain at home.

According to the American Heart Association, every 40 seconds someone in the United States suffers a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when the blood flow that carries oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely, and your body will generally react in a variety of ways. However, contrary to what you have seen in the movies, a heart attack isn’t always obvious, which is why knowing what symptoms to look out for can save your life. Here are five personal stories of heart attack survivors revealing the various symptoms they experienced before and during their heart attacks. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus

1

You Might Have Chest Discomfort

african woman feeling menstrual cyclic breast pain, touching her chest,
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According to the American Heart Association, most heart attacks involve “discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes – or it may go away and then return,” they explain. “It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.” While many people assume this type of pain is intense, sudden, and something you see depicted in the movies as someone grabbing their chest in desperation, the symptom can actually be much more subtle. Angelo Keyes, a retired semipro football player and bodybuilder, was just 54 when he experienced a heart attack while lifting weights at the gym. Since he was working on strengthening his shoulders and chest, when he felt pain in the area, he first ignored it. “You get so used to those aches and pains and nicks and dings. I thought I had pulled a muscle in my chest and shoulder,” he told AARP. However, the pain persisted, and he said to his wife, “If I didn't know any better, I would think I was having a heart attack.'” She instructed him to head to the hospital, but instead he ran an errand first. “That took about five minutes, and by the time I was done I could barely stand up. I realized I really was having a heart attack.” 

2

You Might Have Arm or Shoulder Pain

A man experiencing discomfort in his upper arm
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In 2012, Rosie O'Donnell suffered a heart attack, and like many women, ignored her symptoms. On her Rosie Blog she detailed what happened after she helped an "enormous" woman out of a car. "A few hours later my body hurt, I had an ache in my chest both my arms were sore, everything felt bruised,” she revealed. According to the American Heart Association, many “women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms,” including arm or shoulder pain. “Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure, ” Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center and an American Heart Association volunteer, explains. "I am lucky to be here," O'Donnell continued. "Know the symptoms ladies, listen to the voice inside. The one we all so easily ignore. CALL 911."

3

You Might Have Lightheadedness

woman sitting on couch in living room at home with closed eyes, holding head with hand, suffering from strong sudden headache or migraine, throbbing pain
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One non-specific sign of a heart attack is lightheadedness or dizziness—something many people write off as something not quite as serious. In February 2017, Bob Harper of The Biggest Loser suffered a “widowmaker” heart attack at age 51, later revealing that he chose not to listen to the main warning sign his body gave him up to six weeks before his major health complication "I fainted one time in the gym," Harper revealed during an appearance on the late-night show Watch What Happens With Andy Cohen. "I started having these dizzy spells, and I just kind of overlooked them."

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4

You Might Have Jaw, Neck, or Back Discomfort

Woman sitting on the bed with pain in neck
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Discomfort in other areas of the upper body—including the jaw, neck, and back—are other common symptoms of a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association. On May 30, 2012, Sheila Caldwell, who was 50 at the time, had a heart attack. Later, she explained to Piedmont Medical Center that she had been experiencing warning signs for awhile. “In the months leading up to the heart attack, I had a number of warning signs, one of them being chronic fatigue,” she says. “The fatigue was so debilitating I had even stopped working part-time because I found it so difficult to function and do day-to-day activities.” Another symptom? Radiating pain along her jaw, brushing it off as stress. Then, she experienced a “tremendous amount of pain between her shoulder blades,” but wrote that off to her myalgia and arthritis. However, the morning of her heart attack, she experienced cold sweats, dizziness, nausea, chest pressure, pain in the shoulders down both arms, and shortness of breath. “There were warning signs along the way, but like a lot of women you can find something else to blame it on,” she says. “I think a lot of times we blame them on other things or push them in the background because we are busy and we don’t want to admit that it might be us.” 

5

You Might Have Nausea or Vomiting

The American Heart Association also lists nausea and vomiting as two possible signs of a heart attack. In 2018, when director Kevin Smith suffered his near-fatal widowmaker, the first two symptoms he experienced were nausea and excessive sweating. "I couldn't get comfortable — which is weird because I can get comfortable anywhere … Then I started feeling pressure on my chest. Not like there was an elephant on my chest. I just couldn't catch my breath. Honestly, I was never really in pain,” he admitted during a  Facebook Live video. As for yourself, stay healthy during this pandemic, since COVID can lead to heart trouble—wear a face mask, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, get vaccinated when it becomes available to you, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

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