Back pain can be a symptom of a heart attack, especially in women

Women are more likely to experience subtler heart attack symptoms, such as pain in the upper back.

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Upper back pain can be a sign of a heart attack, especially in women.

Maybe you spent a little extra time doing yardwork over the weekend, or perhaps you moved some furniture into storage. Now your back hurts. But could it be something else?

Most of us know the classic picture of a heart attack: a man clutching at his chest in pain. But the majority of heart attacks in women don’t happen this way.

Women are more likely to experience some subtler symptoms. For example, they may feel pain in the upper back, jaw, teeth and neck, especially if it occurs along with other symptoms such as sudden sweating with no associated exertion, shortness of breath or anxious feelings.

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What Does Upper Back Pain Have to Do With a Heart Attack?

Why would discomfort in the back be a clue to a heart attack? The answer is “referred pain.” This is when the brain is confused about the origin of the pain. While the heart may be starving for oxygen, the nerves connecting the heart to the brain also merge with those connecting the head and neck, so the signals get misinterpreted. Heart attack-related back, neck, or jaw pain is also more diffuse, so it’s difficult to pinpoint its exact location.

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Not all heart attacks are alike, and not all people have the same severity of symptoms. Plus, many people disregard symptoms as something minor. It is important to be checked if you have any unusual symptoms, have risk factors for heart attack, or have a combination of symptoms that might suggest a problem.

The best guide is to know your personal baseline and understand your risk factors. If you smoke or have diabetes, your chances of having a heart attack increase. Sometimes people who have no risk factors and are otherwise considered healthy can have heart attacks. If you haven’t done anything physical to trigger that back pain, and you’re also feeling anxious or very tired along with the pain, that may mean you are experiencing a heart attack.

Common heart attack symptoms can be:

  • Pressure, tightness, or pain in the chest
  • Ache or pain in the neck, jaw, or back
  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath, even when no physical activity has been performed
  • Sweating
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness

If You Believe You Are Having a Heart Attack, Do Not Wait to Get Help

Call 911 or have someone take you to the nearest hospital emergency room. After calling 911, you can:

  • Take nitroglycerin, if prescribed by your doctor.
  • Take aspirin, but only if prescribed by your doctor. Aspirin can interact with other medications and should be taken only when advised by a medical professional.

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