How to know when chest pain signals a heart attack

May 01, 2019 | by Michael Brottman, M.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Hearts

Heart disease remains the top cause of death for men and women in the United States.

For many, chest pain is the first symptom of concern. Known medically as angina, chest pain occurs when the heart muscle is temporarily blocked and deprived of receiving the blood and oxygen it needs.

Each year, millions of Americans are seen in emergency departments for chest pain.

Though unexplained chest pain does not always indicate a heart attack, it should not be ignored. Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. suffers a heart attack. Understanding the warning signs of heart attack, and when to react to them, can save your life.

Angina may feel like pressure or squeezing on your chest. The pain can also occur in your jawbone, shoulders, back, neck or arms. While angina is relatively common, it can be difficult to distinguish from other types of chest pain, such as the discomfort that comes with indigestion.

There are two main types of angina: stable and unstable. The latter sometimes signals a heart attack.

Characteristics of stable angina include:

  • Brought on by exercise or physical exertion (such as climbing stairs)
  • Subsides with rest or medication
  • Lasts only a short time (five minutes or less)

Characteristics of unstable angina include:

  • Occurs even at rest
  • Does not disappear with medication
  • Is unexpected
  • Might signal a heart attack
  • Pain is more severe and lasts longer (30 minutes or more) than stable angina

If you experience chest pain that lasts longer than five minutes or is accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath, weakness or lightheadedness, call 911 and seek help immediately.

A woman having a heart attack may experience different angina symptoms than the classic angina symptoms. Women may also experience nausea, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, discomfort in the neck, jaw or back, and a stabbing pain in the chest rather than pressure.

Because angina can be a sign of an underlying heart disease, it is important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms. The American Heart Association has a tracker you can use to write down when your symptoms occur and how long they last.

Your doctor may treat your angina with nitroglycerin to help ease the discomfort. It can come in a tablet, spray, capsule skin patch or ointment form.

Your doctor also may recommend a change in lifestyle to address risk factors. Lifestyle changes may include not smoking, dietary changes to limit salt and fat intake, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels, avoiding extreme temperatures and strenuous activity, and managing stress levels.

Heart Attack Symptoms Infographic

Download PDF: (Infographic) Know the Signs of a Heart Attack

At Edward-Elmhurst Health, you have access to the latest advancements for diagnosing and treating heart and vascular disease. Learn more about our heart and vascular services.

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Angina explained: 5 questions and answers about chest pain

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