What a heart attack feels like for men and women

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Heart attacks occur when the blood flow to the heart is restricted or ceases completely. This is often caused by a blood clot that forms when plaque builds up in a coronary artery and then ruptures.

The plaque that builds up is caused by bad cholesterol, fats and other waste products. When plaque bursts, it forms a blood clot that can quickly disrupt blood flow to the heart. When heart tissue goes without oxygenated blood it will die, likely leading to heart failure and other complications.

So, what does a heart attack feel like?

Contrary to popular belief (or the heart attacks you see in movies), not all heart attacks involve sharp pain and a dramatic clutching of the chest. Other symptoms may be subtler, such as light-headedness and shortness of breath.

People experience heart attacks in different ways. And women experience heart attacks differently to men, says the Heart Foundation.

What a heart attack feels like for men
The most common sign of a heart attack in men is chest pain, often described as pressure or a squeezing sensation. Pain may be located in the centre of the chest or from armpit to armpit.

Other symptoms for men include:

  • shortness of breath
  • back pain, that often moves up to the neck
  • arm pain, typically in the left arm, but can be in either or both arms
  • jaw pain that sometimes feels like a bad toothache
  • nausea
  • sudden cold sweat
  • light-headedness or dizziness.

What a heart attack feels like for women
The most common sign for women is also chest pain or tightness, but also pain in the upper abdomen. Women are also more likely to experience non-traditional symptoms, such as:

  • fatigue, which may present as flu and be present for days ahead of a heart attack
  • upper back pain, with sensations including burning, tingling or pressure
  • neck and jaw pain
  • pain, tingling or discomfort in either or both arms
  • nausea and vomiting
  • shortness of breath.

While nausea or fatigue can signal many other health issues, you should be mindful that these symptoms don’t happen simultaneously with any of the above.

Silent heart attacks
Some heart attacks have no noticeable symptoms. They’re called silent heart attacks and they represent almost half of all heart attack occurrences in Australia.

Often, they will resolve themselves but can still cause long-term damage. A silent heart attack may be discovered months or years after you’ve had one. If a doctor discovers that you’ve had a silent heart attack, you may be prescribed cardiac rehabilitation.

How long does a heart attack last?
Symptoms will often last about 10 minutes or longer. Symptoms lasting fewer than five minutes are less likely to indicate a heart attack, but anything longer should be taken seriously. If you feel you are at risk of a heart attack, regardless of timeframes, you should call your GP or emergency services. While on the phone, chew 300g of aspirin, unless you’ve been told not to take it.

Download a heart attack action plan from the Heart Foundation.

Have you ever had a heart attack? What did it feel like?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca is a voracious reader who loves words. You'll often find him spending time in galleries, writing, designing, painting, drawing, or photographing and documenting street art. He has a publishing and graphic design background and loves movies and music, but then, who doesn’t?



Total Comments: 4
  1. 0

    Not all heart attacks are easily diagnosed. I had a Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy (Broken Heart) last year. Just one sharp pain in the heart area, as if a knife had been plunged into my chest. A few niggles over the next few days, but I thought it might be gastric. The GP did an ECG and sent me straight to emergency. Apparently my heart muscle was paralysed by a surge of adrenalin. It’s quite a rare syndrome, and not well known. 6 months on I’m finally recovering after another trip to emergency on New Years Day, and constant irregular heartbeat. Takotsubo mainly affects post menopausal woman. I have always been healthy and it was a bit shock

  2. 0

    Thanks for taking the time to type this patti. It’s very important to have articles like this to make people aware of the unusual. I have never heard of it before. Sounds nasty. Congratulations on surviving. I hope it settles down for you so you can continue to enjoy life to the full.

  3. 0

    Patti I am sorry to hear you suffered this condition. Whilst the symptoms of Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy can present as similar to a heart attack, it is not a condition that actually involves blockages to the coronary arteries. It is commonly associated with emotional upheaval, when as you say, the adrenaline receptors in the heart are overloaded and results in muscle damage – which is the cardiomyopathy part of the name. It is diagnosed by echocardiography in which the parts of the heart muscle which contain the highest density of adrenaline receptors are seen to be stunned or very poorly functioning. This situation results in heart failure, which commonly resolves within weeks but can be very serious in the inital phase. The Takotsubo part of the name comes from the name for a Japanese octopus-trapping pot which closely resembles the appearance of the affected heart when visualised by echocardiography. It is indeed more common in women. It was first recognised in the 1980’s and a coronary angiogram may be performed just to confirm that in fact the coronary arteries are not involved in the disease process. The most fascinating fact about this often misdiagnosed disease is that it is the only physical disease that is controlled by interactions between the emotions and the physical body – hence the tag of broken heart. Hope that this bit of back-story is of interest and I hope that you continue to recover.

  4. 0

    Women have hearts? (ahhhhhh, ha, ha, ha, ha)…

    Now that the jokes are out of the way….

    Interesting read.



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