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Recognizing a Heart Attack

Knowing the signs could save a life

A Veteran suffering from chest pain while sitting on a benchHaving a heart attack can be scary for anybody. One moment everything is fine, and the next, you have pain or pressure in your chest, neck, arm or jaw and don't know why. If you don't know the warning signs of a heart attack, you might brush this pain off until it becomes unbearable. By then, you may be in real trouble.

Knowing the signs of a heart attack can help you act fast, to not only save your heart but your life.

What is a heart attack?

About every 40 seconds, someone in America has a heart attack. A heart attack is an urgent message that your heart needs oxygen. The most common cause is coronary artery disease. When a blockage or plaque within a coronary artery ruptures or breaks, a blood clot forms around it. This blood clot can block the oxygen-rich blood from getting to the muscle of your heart. That causes the heart muscle to start dying, and you begin to feel the symptoms of a heart attack. (Another term used to describe this is 'acute myocardial infarction,' it's a good idea to discuss the terminology with your doctor when looking at your situation.)

Are you at risk?

Knowledge is power. Understanding your risks could protect yourself from a future heart attack. Some risk factors you can't control, like age or family history, but there are some that you can:

To lower your risk, check your factors. Then make an appointment or use Secure Messaging (sign in required) to talk to your health care team about making a plan that will help you lower your chances of having a heart attack.

Know the signs

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense. But some may start slowly with mild pain or discomfort. Paying attention to the warning signs may save your life. If you notice yourself having these symptoms, don't wait to get help:

  • Chest pain or pressure

  • Pain or pressure in other areas of the upper body (arms, back, neck, jaw, or upper abdomen)

  • Shortness of breath

  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness

  • Dizziness or blacking out

  • Palpitations

Note for women: Like men, women commonly have chest pain or discomfort as a heart attack symptom. But women may also have other common symptoms, like shortness of breath, nausea, and vomiting, back pain, or jaw pain. It's important not to ignore these symptoms, as they may be warning signs of a heart attack.

Act fast

If you think you have symptoms of a possible heart attack, call 911 immediately. Don't try to drive to the hospital. This way, an experienced EMS team can begin treatment and give faster transportation to the emergency room. Even if you aren't sure, get checked out. Minutes matter and quick action could save a life.


Please vote in our unscientific poll. All responses are anonymous.

Do you feel confident that you would recognize the warning signs of a heart attack?