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February 15, 2023

February is American Heart Month, and we’re not missing a beat. We’re pumped to talk about heart health—including understanding the warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack. The possibility of a heart attack may not be something you worry about (given you may consider yourself healthy and immune to a heart attack), but consider this: heart disease is the leading cause of death for men,* women,** and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States.1 Knowing what to watch for and when to seek emergency help can be the difference between life and death.

Heart attack facts

The stats on heart attacks are staggering, especially when it comes to American heart health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the U.S alone:

  • Someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds2
  • Every year, about 805,000 people have a heart attack.2  Of these…
    • 605,000 are a first heart attack2
    • 200,000 happen to people who’ve already had a heart attack2
    • About 1 in 5 heart attacks are “silent,” meaning the person is not aware they’ve had a heart attack2

What exactly is a heart attack?

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction or MI, is a medical emergency that in most cases is the result of coronary artery disease when the blood flow to the heart is severely reduced or blocked. The blockage is due to a slow yet progressive buildup of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances—called plaque—lining the walls of the coronary arteries. Along with narrowing and hardening the coronary artery wall over time, plaque deposits can sometimes rupture and break free, forming a blood clot that blocks vital blood flow to the heart. That can cause significant damage to the heart muscle and, in some cases, be life threatening. The more time that passes without treatment for a heart attack and the restoring of blood flow, the greater damage to the heart muscle. That’s why it’s so essential to know the symptoms of a heart attack however subtle they might be.

Symptoms of a heart attack

Not every heart attack happens the way they’re often portrayed on the big screen (with a dramatic clutch to the chest and collapse to the floor). In fact, some people have mild symptoms from a heart attack. Others have severe, clear signs. Then again, sometimes heart attack symptoms can be so subtle (e.g., nausea), folks might not be aware that they’ve even had a heart attack (known as a “silent” heart attack)..

Most commonly described symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain that can spread (radiate) to other areas like the left arm (or both arms), shoulder, neck, jaw, back, or down toward the waist
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating/clamminess
  • Lightheadedness/dizziness

Women, men, and heart attack—different yet the same

Interesting to note that in the case of heart attack, women** are less likely to experience heart attack symptoms like chest pain or a feeling of indigestion or heartburn. Prior to a heart attack, women** are more likely to have shortness of breath, fatigue, or insomnia—or experience heart attack symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and pain in the back, shoulders, neck, arms, or abdomen.

Get tests for that pain in your chest

It’s critical to take chest pain seriously—and treat it as an emergency. If you’re experiencing chest pain or discomfort, don’t miss a beat. Seek medical attention immediately.

Immediate tests a doctor may order to evaluate your chest pain symptoms include:

  • Electrocardiogram—or ECG or EKG—to check for different heart conditions by measuring the heart’s electrical activity
  • Blood tests to monitor for increased levels of certain proteins or enzymes typically found in heart muscle
  • Chest X-ray to show the condition of the lungs and the size and shape of the heart and major blood vessels
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan to spot a potential blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism) or detect an aortic dissection

The emergency physicians at GuideWell Emergency Doctors are highly equipped to administer tests like these as they offer the highest standard of care in evaluating and treating potential heart conditions.

Heart disease risk factors

Those particularly at risk for heart attack need to be that much more aware of possible symptoms of heart attack. Some people are at risk of heart attack due to heredity or genetics. Others have acquired high-risk factors for heart attack over the course of time, given their lifestyle.

Genetic or inherited risk factors for heart attack include:

  • Family history of high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Family history of high cholesterol
  • Family history of heart disease (especially true if the heart disease started before age 55)
  • Older men and women**
  • Type 1 diabetes

* Generally, men* are more at risk for heart attack at a younger age than women.** However, after menopause, women are equally at risk for heart attack.

Acquired risk factors for heart attack include:

  • High blood pressure and/or cholesterol
  • Cigarette smoking
  • High stress
  • High alcohol consumption
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Obesity
  • Poor dietary choices (including excessive amount of foods with saturated fat)
  • Type 2 diabetes

While some people are statistically more at risk for heart attack, whether because of genetics or health conditions, heart disease and heart attacks can happen to anyone at any time.

Heart attack: take notice, take action!

Worried about your risk of heart attack? Get your heart screened by a qualified health care provider and do everything you can to lower your risk like maintaining a healthy weight and keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check. In the case of a heart attack, the sooner you get emergency treatment, the higher the chance of survival. That’s why it’s so critical to be able to spot possible warning signs of a heart attack—so you can get the critical care you need STAT.


1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. About Multiple Cause of Death, 1999–2020. CDC WONDER Online Database website. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2022. Accessed February 21, 2022.

2Tsao CW, Aday AW, Almarzooq ZI, Beaton AZ, Bittencourt MS, Boehme AK, et al. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2022 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2022;145(8):e153–e639.

* Men to include people assigned male at birth
** Women to include people assigned female at birth


If you are having chest pain, GuideWell Emergency Doctors can help diagnose the cause of your symptoms. If you think you may be having a heart attack, call 911 and seek immediate medical help.

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