Student Health Center

Healthy You @ RSUFebruary 2009

Heart Disease Signs

When people think of a heart attack, they often picture the "Hollywood Heart Attack": someone grips their chest in pain and collapses to the floor. While chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack, not everyone experiences chest pain during a heart attack.

In fact, women are less likely than men to feel chest pain during a heart attack. Studies suggest that more women than men experience so-called "atypical" symptoms, such as back pain, nausea, or fatigue. And for many people, a heart attack won’t strike without warning. A study of 515 women who had a heart attack found that 95% experienced symptoms before the attack.1 For this reason, it is important for women to recognize the various signs and symptoms of a heart attack so that they can take immediate action if the need arises. Even if you have already suffered a heart attack, the symptoms of a second attack may not be the same as your first.

What are the common symptoms of a heart attack?

Chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack in both men and women. Women often describe their chest pain as pressure, tightness, or an ache. But often women do not experience severe pain during a heart attack 1; for this reason, women should also take milder chest pain seriously. When chest pain occurs, it usually feels like discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes; this pain may come and go.

Many heart attack patients do not feel any chest pain. This is especially true for women. In the study of 515 women who suffered heart attacks, 43% did not experience any type of chest pain or pressure during their heart attack.1 About one third of the women in the study did feel chest pain, but most did not describe the sensation as “pain” instead describing various types of discomfort. Although you may not consider what you are feeling to be pain, chest sensations may indicate heart disease or a heart attack.

Other common heart attack symptoms include shortness of breath, sweating, and pain in one or both arms. Shortness of breath may occur at the same time as the chest pain or it may occur before it. Shortness of breath has been found to be more common in women, whereas sweating is more common in men.2, 3

What are some "atypical" symptoms?

"Atypical" symptoms are symptoms other than the ones mentioned above; however, the term "atypical" is misleading because these symptoms are actually relatively common. “Atypical” symptoms include (but are not limited to):

  • Back, neck, or jaw pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Indigestion
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness

Women experience more "atypical" symptoms at the time of a heart attack than men. In one study, women were more than twice as likely as men to experience nausea, vomiting, or indigestion as heart attack symptoms.4

What are pre-heart attack symptoms?

Pre-heart attack or prodromal symptoms are symptoms that occur before a heart attack, generally from about 4 to 6 months to 1 week before (though some people report these symptoms up to 2 years before their heart attack).

Common pre-heart attack symptoms include 5:

  • Unusual fatigue
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Indigestion
  • Anxiety
  • Pain in shoulder blade or upper back

For more information see: