Signs of a heart attack

Should you call 911?

aspirin-waterIf you’re experiencing chest pain, or pressure in the chest (common signs of a heart attack), but don’t know whether you should call 911, University of Michigan Nurse Practitioner Cheryl Bord advises you ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the pain related to a physical activity or emotional/mental stress?
  • Does the pain/pressure radiate to the left side, upper back, neck, jaw or left shoulder?
  • Are you also experiencing sweating, nausea and/or lightheadedness?
  • Are you having difficulty breathing?

These are symptoms of a heart attack that require immediate medical attention. For men and women, Bord says, “The most common symptom is chest pain or pressure. But women are somewhat more likely than men to have other symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea and upper back or jaw pain.”

If you are experiencing these symptoms, Bord advises you to chew a full-strength aspirin and call 911. “Do not drive yourself to the emergency room, but get there as quickly as possible,” she says.

Symptoms of other heart problems

There are other, milder symptoms that may not indicate a heart attack is imminent, but can serve as warning signs that you should see a health care professional to rule out potential conditions, such as blockage in a coronary artery. These symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain or pressure that comes with any type of physical activity and subsides when the activity is done.
  • A feeling of diminished energy or shortness of breath with an activity that previously did not cause this feeling (e.g., you typically walk three miles with no problems, but all of a sudden you feel you cannot complete the walk due to shortness of breath or the need to stop for a rest).
  • A new awareness of palpitations that occur only with physical activity or shortly after completing physical activity.

What else could it be?

Chest pain can often be attributed to other conditions, including:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which produces a prolonged burning pain.
  • Esophageal spasm, though rare, causes chest pain when the muscles of the esophagus contract abnormally.
  • Musculoskeletal pain can cause pain in the chest area, but typically only with certain movements or when pressure is applied to the area.

The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is the top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit the Heart and Vascular page on UofMHealth.org.