9 Early Signs of a Heart Attack

An early warning sign of heart attack occurs in more than 50% of heart attack patients. Recognizing early symptoms can lead to treatment before heart damage.

Early signs of a heart attack, or “beginnings,” occur in more than 50% of people who have a heart attack. If recognized in time, these early symptoms can be treated before the heart is damaged.

“If you have early warning signs of a heart attack, don’t dismiss it — it’s a chance for you to get care that could prevent a more devastating attack,” said Abdullahi O. Oseni, M.D., an interventional cardiologist with Norton Heart & Vascular Institute. “When we can provide early heart attack care, it gives us a chance to treat the cause of your symptoms before  significant damage occurs.”

Early heart attack symptoms

Someone may experience few early heart attack symptoms or all of the following. When they start, these symptoms can be mild or come and go. Over days or weeks, early heart attack symptoms and pain increase until the person potentially collapses.

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Heart attack in men versus women

Men may experience different heart attack symptoms from women. Why does it matter? Women are less likely to seek immediate medical care and are more likely to die from a heart attack.

  • Men normally feel pain and numbness in the left arm or side of chest. In women, the pain and numbness may appear on the right side. 
  • Women may feel completely exhausted, drained, dizzy or nauseous.
  • Women may feel upper back pain that travels up into the jaw.
  • Women may think stomach pain is the flu, heartburn or an ulcer.

Norton Heart & Vascular Institute

Norton Heart & Vascular Institute provides comprehensive, top-rated care from the American Heart Association for heart attacks and myocardial infarction.

If you are having heart attack symptoms, call 911.

If you have had a heart attack in the past, the Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Chest Pain Clinic on the campus of Norton Audubon Hospital provides ongoing care to stabilized patients.

Call (502) 891-8300

How can you prevent a heart attack?

Up to 85% of heart damage can occur within the first two hours of a heart attack. Know these early heart attack symptoms and act on them immediately — before any damage occurs.

  • Be alert for a heart attack in yourself or someone around you. Becoming an active bystander could save a life.
  • When in doubt, call 911 about heart attack signs. First responders have the medical technology to quickly save a life. 

Heart attack risk factors

Several risk factors increase your chance of having a heart attack. Many are controllable by making changes to your lifestyle. Discuss your personal risk of a heart attack with your doctor, including:

  • Chest pain, pressure, aching or tightness that may come and go
  • A family history of heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Overweight or obese
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Using tobacco products
  • Metabolic disease, diabetes or other illness
  • For women: using birth control pills, a history of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes or having a baby with low birth weight

What happens in a heart attack

The heart’s job is to pump blood around the body. Like any muscle, the heart itself needs its own supply of oxygen-rich blood to do its job. The coronary arteries supply the heart muscle. When that blood flow is interrupted, robbing the heart of the oxygen and other nutrients it needs to do its job, the result is myocardial infarction — commonly known as a heart attack. Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops pumping.

Cholesterol buildup inside the blood vessels — a heart disease called arteriosclerosis — is a common cause of blockages that lead to heart attacks. Cholesterol buildup, or plaques, can break free from the blood vessel wall and lead to a blood clot that blocks the artery and ends up causing a heart attack or stroke.

When the heart muscle isn’t getting the oxygen it needs, the result can be the common symptom of chest pain and other symptoms. Heart attacks that start slowly can show an early warning sign, such as chest discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes. 

If you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, the American Heart Association advises seeking medical help right away. If you have heart attack warning signs, call 911 immediately.

EMTs typically can respond to you faster than you can get to an emergency room. They can begin treatment right away and are trained to resuscitate you if you go into cardiac arrest.

EMTs can alert heart attack response teams at the emergency room while taking you there.

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