What Does a Heart Attack Feel Like

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 735,000 Americans each year have a heart attack.

210,000 of these cases happen to someone who’s previously had a heart attack, with the remaining suffering their first.

So what does a heart attack feel like?

Whether you know someone who’s recently had a heart attack or you want to be vigilant for the signs and symptoms of one, we’ll explore what a heart attack feels like, what the warning signs are, and how things differ between men and women.

What Is a Heart Attack? 

Symptoms, Causes and Health Risks of an Enlarged Heart

In order to survive, your heart muscle needs oxygen. However, when this oxygen supply from the blood is significantly reduced or completely cut off, a heart attack may occur.

This supply of oxygen can diminish because the coronary arteries that bring oxygenated blood to the heart become narrowed. Known as atherosclerosis, this is caused by the build-up of cholesterol, fat and other substances that create a potentially fatal “plaque.”

If the plaque in the artery of the heart breaks, a blood clot forms around it. This can stop blood from flowing to the heart muscle through the artery.

When the heart muscle is starved of its essential nutrients and oxygen, what’s known as an ischemia occurs. When parts of the heart muscle suffer damage or die because of an ischemia, this is called a myocardial infarction (MI) or heart attack.

What Does a Heart Attack Feel Like? 

While the aforementioned process can take years to develop, you may not experience any symptoms until you’re having a heart attack.

How come?

Atherosclerosis doesn’t have any symptoms.

This is due to other nearby blood vessels often compensating for the narrowed coronary artery by expanding to increase their blood flow. This is called “collateral circulation” and helps prevent heart attacks in some people by ensuring the heart gets the blood it needs. Furthermore, to help the heart muscle recover after a heart attack, collateral circulation can occur then, too.

Therefore, the first signs of a heart attack may be just like you see in the movies – someone collapsing and clutching their chest due to the pain. But there are other symptoms too, including light-headedness and shortness of breath. A lot of people will experience a plethora of symptoms.

However, it’s important to note that the symptoms experienced are often very different between men and women.

How a heart attack feels for one person might not be how it feels for someone else. For example, you may be able to finish your meal or continue talking, perhaps being unaware that something is seriously wrong, even though you feel light-headed and have a pain in your chest.

Nevertheless, if you think you or someone you’re with is having a heart attack, you should dial 911 straight away.

What Does a Heart Attack Feel Like for a Man? 

While heart attacks don’t always involve chest pains, it is the most common sign that a man’s having a heart attack.

This pain in the chest is often described as being a squeezing or pressured sensation and it tends to be located in the middle of the chest. However, some may feel it spreading from armpit to armpit.

Other common signs include:

  • Arm pain in either or both arms but typically in the left arm
  • Back pain that tends to move up into the neck
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Jaw pain that may feel like excruciating toothache
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath which may develop before any of the above symptoms, but is often present when you’re moving around or sitting still
  • Sudden cold sweat

What Does a Heart Attack Feel Like for a Woman? 

As with men, the most common symptom for women having a heart attack is chest tightness or pain. However, women are more likely to also have a number of other “unconventional” symptoms, such as:

  • Fatigue which may be present several days before any other symptoms become apparent, giving you the false impression that you’re coming down with flu
  • Jaw and neck pain that’s often unaccompanied by chest pain (jaw pain is often a sign of a heart attack as the nerves that serve the jaw and heart are close to each other)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain, discomfort, or tingling in both or either arms
  • Pain in the upper abdomen
  • Shortness of breath that comes on suddenly and may or may not be accompanied by chest pain (it may feel like you’ve just been running, even though you haven’t moved)

So while both women and men experience pains in their chest, women can experience heart attacks without having pressure in their chest. They are more likely to experience a combination of the other symptoms, too.

Therefore, as some of these symptoms, e.g. fatigue or nausea, can signal a variety of illnesses and complications, you should bear in mind that they’re also potential symptoms of a heart attack.

For example, if you suddenly feel as though you aren’t able to catch your breath, are nauseated, or have extreme pain in your jaw, call 911 and tell them you may be having a heart attack.

Unfortunately, women often don’t seek help if they’re experiencing these kinds of symptoms. This is partially due to the fact that there’s less likelihood of a pre-menopausal woman having a heart attack compared to a man. However, post-menopause, the odds become more or less equal.

Understanding Chest Pains and Angina 


Despite the fact that chest pains are a key indicator of heart attacks, angina is also another common type of chest pain.

It also causes a few minutes of discomfort but this tends to recur. This is due to angina occurring when there’s a lack of blood (and thus oxygen) to your heart muscle.

But the difference between a heart attack and angina is that there’s no permanent damage to the heart muscle in an angina attack.

The different types of angina and their symptoms are below:

  • Stable angina: Also known as angina pectoris, stable angina is caused by coronary heart disease. It typically causes pain, squeezing, fullness, or pressure in the middle of your chest. However, you may also have discomfort in your arm, back, shoulder, jaw, or neck. These symptoms don’t come as a surprise and usually only last for up to 5 minutes. Possible triggers include heavy meals, hot or cold temperatures, exercise, emotional stress, and smoking. Medication and rest often relieve the discomfort.
  • Unstable angina: Also known as acute coronary syndrome, unstable angina happens while you’re sleeping or resting and haven’t been doing anything exertive. This type of angina does come as a surprise and the symptoms may last longer than in cases of stable angina. Medicine and rest won’t relieve the symptoms and they may get worse over time. It can lead to a heart attack which is why the blockage in the blood vessel needs treating immediately.

Again, these symptoms can vary between men and women, with the latter often experiencing abdominal pains, vomiting, nausea, and breathlessness as well.

This difference in symptoms can be down to the fact that women tend to develop heart disease in the smaller blood vessels that branch off from the main ones. Known as microvascular disease (MVD), this is harder to diagnose and is more prevalent in younger women.

Early Warning Signs That Could Indicate a Heart Attack 

Even though heart attack symptoms often develop late on, there are some early warning signs that you should look for.

This is because while heart attacks happen suddenly, the onset of other symptoms may happen slowly and mildly.

Oftentimes, heart attack sufferers will feel tired for several days before more severe symptoms start to appear. Some also suggest they feel a sense of dread or anxiety for a few days before their heart attack, too.

Some of the other symptoms, like nausea, shortness of breath, and mild-to-moderate pain in the arm(s), may also happen quite a bit before the chest pressure, and so on.

It’s also important to understand what your risk of having a heart attack is. Understanding the risk factors involved could help you get treated quickly, especially when some of the less severe symptoms occur.

Risk Factors for a Heart Attack 


All of the below may increase your risk of having a heart attack:

  • Age (over the age of 45 for men and 55 for women)
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Obesity

Acting Fast 

Hopefully, the above has answered the question, “what does a heart attack feel like?” It should also have given you more detail about the signs and symptoms you should look out for in yourself and those around you.

While you may feel as though the symptoms are significant, you shouldn’t ignore any that could point toward a heart attack. If you can’t explain how you feel or you have a vague feeling of doom or uneasiness, listen to your body and seek medical attention straight away.

Acting fast in these situations can save lives as restoring regular blood flow to the heart can reduce how much damage is caused.

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